- The Washington Times - Friday, November 5, 2004

James M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” which had its London theatrical premiere Dec. 27, 1904, is now the backdrop to a wistful and somber biographical drama titled “Finding Neverland,” directed by Marc Forster, who had one of the sensationalistic hits of 2001, “Monster’s Ball.”

Opening Friday, “Neverland” stars Johnny Depp as the elfin Scottish author and dramatizes the circumstances that led to the writing and production of “Peter Pan.” Encountered in the wake of a flop, Barrie rebounds after a chance meeting with four boys who provide the inspiration for his spectacularly inventive fantasy about fugitive children transported to a playland.

Mr. Forster, who was born in Switzerland and pursued a filmmaking education at New York University in the early 1990s, passed through Washington several weeks ago, when “Neverland” was expected to open in October. The Miramax management decided to reposition it as a prelude to the holiday season. The director says he believes he might have been “the last one to find out.”

The source material for “Neverland” was a New York theater workshop production of a play called “The Man Who Was Peter Pan,” which remains unproduced on Broadway or the West End. Mr. Forster never saw it. He became aware of the subject matter only after it had been transformed into a screenplay by David McGee.

“I read it and liked it, but I was busy with ‘Monster’s Ball,’” he says. “No one would have taken my interest very seriously at the time. The subject matter of the two projects looked miles apart. It’s a big jump from being threatened with an NC-17 rating to working on a PG story. When my agent told me that the Barrie script was still looking for a director … we arranged to screen ‘Monster’s Ball’ for Harvey Weinstein, and I got the chance to tell him my vision for ‘Finding Neverland.’ It was like a miracle.”

Technically, “Neverland” would probably justify a G rating. It’s the dire circumstances that surrounded Barrie’s new acquaintances, the Llewelyn-Davies family, that argue for a more cautionary PG. “Neverland” is about an extraordinary set of children and a writer with a distinctively childlike sensibility, but it’s not a children’s film.

The parents, a lawyer named Arthur and his wife, Sylvia, portrayed by Kate Winslet, had five sons. The movie eliminates both the father and the youngest son, Nico, in advance. Arthur succumbed to cancer in 1907 and Sylvia three years later. After her death, Barrie became the unofficial guardian of the boys, then 7 to 17.

Streamlining the griefs that haunted this association, the movie envisions Barrie first meeting the boys in the wake of their father’s death. His devotion to the widow and her sons dooms his own shaky marriage and arouses resentment in Sylvia’s widowed mother, played by Julie Christie. Barrie was insinuating himself, innocently enough, into a family that also was prominent: Sylvia’s late father was George du Maurier, the artist and novelist who created the characters Svengali and Trilby.

Given the fatalities that also haunted “Monster’s Ball,” is it fair to assume that Marc Forster is drawn to stories that emphasize family loss? “I have to admit it’s a common theme,” he replies. “The film I’m finishing now, ‘Stay,’ is about a psychiatrist with a suicidal patient, so I haven’t really finished with the mortality theme. The picture I’ll start next, ‘Stranger Than Fiction,’ also touches on the same subject, but in a much lighter way. I had a lot of death in my family at one point. In 1998, my older brother, father and grandmother died within a matter of months. That was a very rough stretch, and I think the emotions of that experience did come out powerfully in ‘Monster’s Ball.’ ”

Stevens on Silver screen

The American Film Institute Silver Theatre devotes part of its holiday-season programming to a centennial retrospective honoring the late director George Stevens, who was born in Oakland, Calif., on Dec. 18, 1904. The series begins tomorrow with a 4 p.m. revival of “Shane” and continues intermittently through the end of December.

The Stevens tribute will include “Giant,” “Alice Adams,” “Penny Serenade,” “Gunga Din,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Swing Time,” “The More the Merrier,” “The Talk of the Town,” “I Remember Mama,” “A Place in the Sun” and a quartet of Laurel and Hardy two-reelers that were photographed by Mr. Stevens when he was a cameraman at the Hal Roach Studio in the late 1920s.

George Stevens Jr., AFI’s founding director, has agreed to discuss his father’s estimable career at a program yet to be scheduled. The most logical date would be Wednesday, when his exemplary 1985 documentary, “George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey,” will be shown at 7 p.m. “Shane” is scheduled for a 9:30 p.m. encore on the same day.

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