Tell me secrets, tell me lies

“Finding Neverland”Miramax FilmsDirected by Marc ForsterWritten by David Magee from the play by Allan KneeStarring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, and Dustin HoffmanRated PG/108 minOpens in theaters Nov. 24

Four out of five stars

Full of storybook charm and flights of fancy, “Finding Neverland” is a gentle delight. Its star, Johnny Depp, has played an insouciant pirate, a cross-dressing filmmaker and Edward Scissorhands, so the relatively normal role of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie may seem strictly pedestrian. But look closer-Depp finds the perfect, enchanting tone in a movie that could have gone seriously wrong.

It’s turn of the century London. The James M. Barrie in this film (it’s important to make that distinction) is an obsessive playwright. His marriage to Mary (Radha Mitchell) has cooled to an icy chill-her job is to watch on the sidelines of his genius. His latest play, a hoity-toity drama with a stick up its you-know-what, lulls the audience to sleep. His producer (Dustin Hoffman) loses a fortune. Has James lost his touch? Something’s missing from Barrie’s magic touch.

One day in the park, he meets Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), a fetching widow with four young boys, Jack, George, Peter and Michael. James has an effortless affinity with her children. Soon, he’s a frequent guest at the Davies’ home, playing cowboys and Indians and other make-believe games.

Such boundless youth and imagination speaks to the child in James. He grabs a pen as inspiration comes left and right: a hook on the end of a scolding cane, a shining bell on the tail of a kite, the boys jumping in bed, soaring out the window… Sound familiar?

But is James spending too much time with the Davies? Night after night, his wife dines alone. Whispers of infidelity ripple across the pool of high society. Sylvia Davies? Spending her days with a married man? Her mother (Julie Christie) won’t hear of it-she warns James away more than once. And what about him and the children, dressing up as pirates and lollygagging the afternoon away? It looks a bit… queer.

Was James simply great with kids, or was something more sinister going on?

Director Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball”) and writer David Magee (based on the play by Allan Knee) clearly see James as a man intoxicated with the innocence and magic of childhood, and nothing more.

It’s a brave decision, opening the film to easy criticism over its accuracy and over-sentimentality, but what would you rather see? A film that makes a big fuss over rumors of pedophilia, or a film that celebrates the power of believing?

Incidentally, the film proudly tells us it’s a true story, but that’s misleading-there’s a heightened sense of reality all throughout “Finding Neverland.” Both feet on the ground? Forget about it.

Explain the tree outside James’ cottage. This is not a tree, but “A Tree,” in all its fantastic fairy-tale trappings. Or how about the way the light falls so romantically in Sylvia’s backyard? London never looked so picturesque.

But the best example, by far, is how the film visualizes the world of make-believe. There’s a scene on a pirate ship bursting with some truly bizarre special effects. I’d ruin the fun if I described it-suffice it to say, you’ll agree there was no other way it could have been staged.

Of the boys, Freddie Highmore is a real discovery. As Peter, he’s the oldest 8-year-old in the world, still brooding over his father’s death. He’s more practical and serious than any boy his age deserves to be.

When death comes knocking on his family’s doorstep once again, he resents his mother’s placations. “I won’t be made a fool!” he cries. Highmore does some pretty intense acting here-more than most child actors ever do-and he’s up to the task. How about an Oscar nod for this guy?

Kate Winslet is convincingly headstrong as Sylvia. Dustin Hoffman is amusing in what amounts to little more than a cameo. Julie Christie is surprisingly sympathetic as the doubting mother with a very good reason for being so protective of her daughter.

But it all comes back to Johnny Depp. The movie really hinges on his performance-one false look at those kids and another, more infamous Neverland might spring to mind. Depp never looks more than simply charmed, and he never condescends. He plays on the same level as the kids, which is exactly what made Barrie so endearing.

If the film has any faults, a few scenes sort of just end with an awkward thud. Maybe someone did a hack job in the editing room. And the mood’s a bit stuffy for the first 30 minutes or so, until the kids show up. Perhaps that was a creative decision, but somehow I doubt it.

“Finding Neverland” is a refreshingly earnest film, telling its story not with hip irony, but with love and respect for J.M. Barrie and the story of Peter Pan.

Yes, it’s shamelessly sentimental, but who other than Barrie deserves a film that rejects the cynicism of adulthood and embraces the bright-eyed innocence of a child?

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