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FINDING NEVERLAND (article first published : 2005-03-20)

From drag act to a creepy teen with scissors for hands. From weirdo film-maker with a penchant for cross-dressing to a flamboyant, tipsy pirate. Johnny Depp has certainly taken on a wide variety of colourful roles during his film career.

Yet each of these oddball characters has had the common thread of a hint of fragility behind a very showy exterior. The same applies to the latest role by the 41-year-old American, long a reluctant heart-throb, who started his climb to fame as the hunk ingredient of television's 21 Jump Street, in the 80s. It's the role of Scottish playwright J M Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, in Finding Neverland, a film by Marc Forster who directed Halle Berry to an Academy Award in the memorable Monster's Ball.

The director could well do the same for Depp - the star is a Best Actor Oscar-nominee for the second year in a row, following the nod for his offbeat Jack Sparrow in the massively successful Pirates of the Caribbean. Set in Edwardian England, Finding Neverland is a handsome film centring on an imaginary series of meetings and conversations between Barrie, whose marriage to a social-climber is on the rocks, and a widow called Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies.

The friendship, it is maintained, was purely platonic, Barrie having met Llewellyn-Davies and her four young sons during one of his daily visits to Kensington Park. It was through their growing close friendship, and a particularly strong bond with Llewellyn-Davies's loner son, Peter (Highmore), who battled more than his siblings to shake the grief over his father's untimely death, that Barrie was moved to write Peter Pan.

Inspiration came from him engaging the boys in exercises of make-believe and dress-up, games about pirates, Indians and castaways. All pave the way for Forster injecting into his elegant, often-moving drama some clever, witty, stylistic fantasy sequences that hint of the classic fairytale that will be written. Although Forster's film chronicles Barrie and the Llewelyn-Davies's relationship as innocent and pure, he does reflect on the fact that it raises a few eyebrows.

Llewellyn-Davies's mother, depicted as icy and brittle by Julie Christie, is not at all happy about Barrie's constant presence, particularly when her daughter starts to become desperately ill and increasingly reliant on her mother's help. Then there are the gossips, who wag on about something more sinister. And even though one is aware this is a more innocent time, 21st century thinking cannot help but make one sidle with the whisperers. Does Barrie's passionate interest in these little boys perhaps mask ulterior motives, similar to the allegations currently being fired at another troubled celebrity with his own Neverland connection and fascination with boys?

Empire film magazine recently approached Depp on this issue. "With Barrie a lot of the criticism is unjust," he replied. He added: "Those kids were interviewed later in life and said in no uncertain terms that there was no molestation, no fiddle-faddle. Barrie was just a great man. He loved those kids and they loved him. That's what it boils down to."

Finding Neverland is a captivating celebration of love, friendship, the fragility of life and the unleashing of talent by the liberation of an unbridled imagination.

However, Depp, good as he is, maintaining a fine Scottish accent throughout, is unlikely to beat Jamie Foxx, superb as Ray Charles in Ray, to this year's Oscar. But his time will come. He has a number of great projects lined up, including playing opposite 12-year-old Highmore again. They are pairing up in Tim Burton's non-musical version of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which Highmore fills the title role. Depp will play colourful and enigmatic chocolate factory owner Willy Wonka. Finding Neverland gets a rating of 8/10. - Billy Suter




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