'Neverland' is worth a visit

Johnny Depp adds emotional heft to the life of J.M. Barrie

'Finding Neverland," about playwright J.M. Barrie writing his classic "Peter Pan," marks unexpected steps for its director and star.

The director is Marc Forster, whose "Monster's Ball" earned Halle Berry a Best Actress Oscar in 2002. That was a very modern movie, about such timely topics such as capital punishment and interracial love. It was also a well-directed picture, with powerful moods for which Forster deserves praise.

The star of "Finding Neverland" is Johnny Depp, a chameleon who's energized films ranging from "Edward Scissorhands" to last year's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," where his buccaneer bravado garnered an Oscar nomination.

Depp has played historical roles straight, as in "From Hell," and he does that again in "Finding Neverland," portraying Barrie as an eccentric, good-natured artist whose personal frustrations inflect his professional work. The story centers on his friendship with an attractive widow, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and her children, which shields him from the inadequacy of his own marriage and inspires him to write a theatrical fantasy about children - despite the misgivings of his manager, who's convinced "Peter Pan" will be a flop.

David Magee's screenplay takes plenty of liberties with Barrie's biography - for example, sidestepping the fact that Davies wasn't yet a widow when Barrie started keeping company with her. If the movie compensates for such evasions with a sense of emotional truth, Depp and Forster share the credit. Depp uses subtle underplaying to bring out Barrie's unconventional wit and wisdom.

Forster keeps the picture as a whole in perfect tune with Depp's approach, and - in a maneuver that recalls "Monster's Ball," albeit indirectly - he gives the story a compellingly dark atmosphere. The movie deals candidly with the death of a major character, facing up to sadness even as it softens the situation via Barrie's gift for optimistic fantasy.

Add a fine supporting cast including Kate Winslet as Davies and Dustin Hoffman as Barrie's manager, and you have a low-key biopic that's well worth a visit.

Rated PG; contains illness and death.

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