Would you let your children play with J.M. Barrie? Sure, you say you would after watching Finding Neverland and heaving deep sobs at Marc Forster’s delicate, tasteful, immeasurably sad tale of the creation of Peter Pan. But, really: The man (a mournful Johnny Depp) hangs out on a park bench day after day, barely speaks to his retired actress wife (Radha Mitchell), and only really comes to life when horsing around with the four strapping young Llewelyn Davies boys. It’s okay, reasons their ailing mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet): This is the famous playwright Sir James Matthew Barrie — a celebrity. But isn’t that notion currently on trial in California?
The truth is that this Neverland, an exquisitely wrought piece of three-hankie drama, dodges more questions than it answers about the real Barrie. And only some of them are addressed on the commentary track by Forster; screenwriter David Magee, and producer Richard N. Gladstein, who defend their fiddling with historical facts by saying, well, their subject was a fabulist too. They also insist that Barrie was an asexual aesthete trapped in his own dreams of childhood innocence. Depp’s delightful, nuanced performance makes that case more convincingly, and the film is best enjoyed for its gallery of players: canny geezers like Dustin Hoffman (as Barrie’s producer) and Julie Christie (as the boys’ disapproving grandmother), plus the eerily gifted Freddie Highmore as the most sensitive of the Llewelyn Davies clan. Clap your hands if you believe.