The sources for magical fantasy are far and wide but director Marc Forster
("Monster's Ball") gave himself a good head start by suggesting what
processes might have been behind Scottish author James Matthew Barrie's
creation of "Peter Pan." You may not believe a word of it in a literal
sense, but fantasies never were much good with reality.
To set up the supposed events, we first see James Barrie (Johnny Depp) as a
nervous playright on opening night of his latest play in a majestic London
theatre run by producer- entrepreneur Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman). The
play's a flop, his wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) plays interference with a grossly
unsatisfied audience, and the playright returns to a chilly in which to lick
his creative wounds.
The seed for his next project is discovered under a park bench where a little
boy is imprisoned by his elder brother, an incident of play-acting and
imagination that propels Barrie's interest toward the boy's family and
commences his entry into a new world of imagination. In this episode of his
life, he meets the other two brothers and, inevitably, their mum and young
widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) who all will now fill this new
episode of Barrie's life and career. He becomes as an uncle, big brother and
surrogate father to the boys, creating all sorts of play worlds replete with
props and costumery for them as they inspire the formation of the play within
him as well as deeper affections.
In short order, his absence from hearth and home invites rising chilliness
Mary who, while intelligent and quite beautiful, seems a cold fish to the
fiery creative genius burning within the husband-artist's soul. His
time-filling devotion to the struggling Davies family becomes more than an
emotionally abandoned wife may be expected to carry on.
Barrie's attentions to the Davies are evident to more than one house in the
community, as the upper crust of society is scandalized by the liason. No
less than Sylvia's mom, Mrs. du Maurier (Julie Christie), shows up to protect
the interests and remaining reputation of her daughter who needs a man in a
position to marry her and vindicate the family.
A sub-plot within the intrigue is the way Barrie handles the harsh realities
and inner grief of Sylvia's son Peter (Freddie Highmore), who has the
precocious audacity of a little boy who contests everything, including
Barrie's motives and kindness. While rejecting the man as "not his real
father," he nevertheless responds to his influence and urgings to compose a
play of his own.
This is a strong cast which revolves around the Depp mystique ("Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse
of the Black Pearl", 2003, "Secret Window", 2004) and his restless talent. There's no
pirate or wild gypsy here. For Barrie, Depp is outfitted in a wardrobe of
exquisite taste and a subtle manner that completes his portrait of a class
guy. The key to the impression he makes seems to be in the quietude of his
expression, almost a study in laying back and allowing the words do the work.
Watching Depp work is entertainment in a very pure form with confidence and
creative ingenuity its hallmarks.
In a subject given to certain flamboyance, restrained emotive delivery is
effective, and the style is balanced enough to suspect a directorial
influence. Kate Winslet portrays her role with a steady recognition of her
need to maintain personal dignity while restraining the natural desire to
more fully and physically experience the ardor of a man whose freedom of
spirit is a close match to her own.
Fantasy gives much opportunity for visual effects and they are here in
seamless realization of a Peter Pannish imagery. The lush cinematography is
by Roberto Schaefer and the score's "Peter's Song" is by Elton John. All
said and done, the over-sentimental potentials of such a subject and scenario
-- even as the title suggests -- don't quite get drowned in a miasma of
bathos despite too many journeys to invented worlds. I suspect it's going to
provoke considerable identification for the very young in the audience and
give new meaning to Peter Pan for us adults wandering on the periphery.
~~ Jules Brenner