It's London, 1903, when life is suddenly modern but societal expectations still constrict. There is a man for whom niceties matter little, much to the consternation of his ambitious wife. It's opening night for his play, and he's refusing to meet and greet. Instead, he stands backstage, obsessing and worrying. The curtain rises. The play flops. So the man does what he does best: He retreats into the seductive embrace of his imagination and watches with satisfaction as a sudden, drenching rain soaks the sourpusses sitting in the audience.
For playwright J.M. Barrie, imagination is a most satisfying mistress. It enables him to ignore a strained marriage, frustrates his ever-frustrated producer (a prosperous-looking Dustin Hoffman) and eventually results in his career triumph, the children's classic play "Peter Pan."
This illicit lover is by far the best thing about "Finding Neverland," which stars Johnny Depp as Barrie and Kate Winslet as his platonic lady love, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies: A big shaggy dog becomes a dancing bear, waltzing around and around and around with Barrie. An umbrella becomes the captain's hook. Boys bouncing on beds suddenly are catapulted in the air and out the window, taking whimsical flight.
"Finding Neverland," directed by Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball"), is both "inspired by true events" and based on a play, "The Man Who Was Peter Pan." Played by Depp with an air of wonder and a soft Scottish burr, Barrie is a case of arrested development: He can't seem to connect with his icy babe of a wife (Radha Mitchell), for whom keeping up with the social register is a life's calling. At dinner, they make listless conversation across a long dining room table; at bedtime, they say goodnight, shutting the doors to their separate quarters.
He finds fun in the park, making the acquaintance of the Davies family, four charming boys and their widowed mother (Winslet). They're all quickly charmed by Barrie's whimsy, except for Peter (a wise and skilled performance from 12-year-old Freddie Highmore). Where Barrie is a grown-up who refuses to grow up, Peter is a boy grown too old, all pinched face and bitter asides. His father abandoned him by dying, and he's not going to let misfortune sneak up on him again. And so he stands, at the ready, waiting for life to deliver another blow. In due course, he too is seduced by Barrie's exuberance, and he's soon flying around the house, playing with mermaids and Indians and dodging the dangers of Captain Hook.
"Young boys should never be sent to bed," Barrie says as he watches the boys ricochet through their house in an attempt to avoid bedtime; "they always wake up a day older."
Soon, of course, people start to talk; whispers of pedophilia and all sorts of improprieties float around, a discomfiting but inevitable reminder of that other man who would be Peter Pan -- Michael Jackson. But Barrie's love is a chaste one, both for Sylvia and for the children. He is the ultimate innocent, even when tragedy revisits the Davies family. Even in the movie's most emotionally manipulative scenes, Depp is always convincing, bringing exuberance and tenderness to a portrait of the writer as a lonely man, a man who seeks to assuage that loneliness through another man's family while his wife waits at home alone.
Still, save for the pirates and the ticking crocodile, there are no bad guys here, just decent folks trying to muddle along as best they can. Barrie's wife may be a snob, but Mitchell convincingly portrays a woman bedeviled by her husband's indifference.
"Finding Neverland" is a movie that's neither 'twixt nor 'tween, which is to say it's too grown up for children and too childlike for adults. It's amusing to watch Barrie's greatest love, his imagination, come to full flower under the inspiration of the Davies boys. But it leans too heavily on the Meaningful Moments, trumpeting their arrival and shamelessly playing the audience like a Stradivarius. You're expected to weep, and perhaps you will weep. But if you do, it's not likely that you'll respect yourself in the morning.
Finding Neverland (101 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for adult themes and brief profanity.