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Oscar Nominee <i>Finding Neverland</i> Expands on Popular Children's Story

  • Alan Silverman

Only one of this year's best picture Oscar nominees is a "family film:" a gently whimsical history of how a literary classic beloved by children around the world sprang from imagination and a chance encounter in a London park. Alan Silverman has a look at Finding Neverland.

In London at the turn of the 20th century, Scottish-born James M. Barrie was a celebrated playwright in need of inspiration. He found it when he met widow Sylvia Davies and her four young sons on a spring morning in Kensington Gardens. Smarting from the failure of his most recent play and the growing coldness in his marriage, Barrie began spending more and more time with the Davies family.

Though the relationship with Sylvia remains chaste, Barrie becomes a surrogate father to the boys ... and, in return, their exuberant play provides him with the heart of what would become his most famous work.

Johnny Depp earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the Peter Pan author; but the actor who loves to research his roles says the more he learned about the real Barrie, the tougher his job became:

"He was a dark guy, J.M. Barrie," explains Depp. "I'd like to say it was a lot of fun, but it wasn't. Just in terms of playing him, it was a bit rough. There's a real depth and sort of weight to him ... a tragic quality."

It becomes a deft blend of tragedy and comedy, such as when Depp, as Barrie, arrives at the Davies London home wearing a feathered American Indian war bonnet and carrying a quacking toy duck.

"Barrie was incredibly comfortable around little kids and totally rigid around adults. [He was] A strange guy," Depp says.

How did Depp get along so well with the young English actors who played the Davies boys? Australian actress Radha Mitchell, who played Mrs. Barrie, reveals his secret: a little device which made rude noises when Depp squeezed it.

"It was kind of useful because we were acting with these kids all of the time," he says. "English children are so very well behaved and they don't ever say anything out of turn. So he would squeeze it during scenes and you could see them trying not to laugh. It was great for what we were doing. So he has a lot of fun on set."

Kate Winslet co-stars as Mrs. Davies and says the relationship with Barrie was sparked by his imagination.

"She is fascinated by him in the same way as the boys are fascinated by him. That's the wonderful undercurrent of this story: they are so magnetically drawn to this man and not because he does anything or entices them in," she says. "It's just by being who he is and welcoming them into his sort of fantastical world."

Depp says the key to Finding Neverland - as it is in Peter Pan - is the imagination.

"How important it is to allow your imagination to be free to invent things, however ridiculous, and not be afraid to take risks," he says.

Finding Neverland is directed by Marc Forster. The cast also features young Freddie Highmore as Peter Davies; Dustin Hoffman plays J.M. Barrie's theatrical producer; and Julie Christie is Sylvia Davies' authoritarian mother.

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