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As the eccentric Edwardian playwright J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, Johnny Depp gives a subtle, uncanny and, by the end, convulsively moving performance. With a lilting Scottish burr and an unflappable confidence in whimsy, he makes an honest tearjerker out of what could have been the palest ode to imagination.

In the movie's fictionalized version of Barrie's life, the writer befriends the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her brood of sons at a time when his creativity has dried up and his marriage to a fetching, society-minded former actress, Mary Ansell (Rhada Mitchell), has gone sour.

The Davies clan serves as his alternate family and collective muse as Barrie attempts to ease their financial straits and gloom after the recent death of Sylvia's husband. He catalyzes group flights of fancy - amateur theatricals, pirate games - which in turn inspire the commercial and artistic coup of his first childlike play, Peter Pan.

The playwright becomes the spirit of youthful play incarnate, the embodiment of pure juvenile feeling: a conception that courts preciousness or sickliness.

Depp, though, fills this character out with his own complexity and substance. He has the instinct and the talent to demonstrate the deceptive reedy strength of an "eternal youth" and the bone-deep failure felt by someone who can't quite negotiate his manhood.

Few actors (for that matter, few artists) can focus intelligence and sensitivity without a hint of vanity or self-consciousness, as Depp does in his best moments here. With little more than a flash of his eyes, Depp pulls off a lightning shock of recognition when Barrie realizes that the oldest Davies boy (Nick Roud) has reached emotional maturity. And Depp tops that when, in the face of the Davies' continuing tragedies, Barrie feels shriveled and abject until he realizes he has enough toughness left to help the family's most troubled child: young Peter, played by the heartbreaking Freddie Highmore.

The changes Depp goes through in character are fluid and real - instants of truth caught on the fly. When the achingly transparent Peter responds to them, the content may be sorrowful but the expression of emotion is so full and eloquent you feel like cheering. These actors' artfulness achieves sublime artlessness.

Even more than acting genius, Depp's Barrie is a pinnacle of valiant acting character. He proves that he can stand beside established legends of the screen. When audiences saw Robert Donat and Peter O'Toole in the 1939 and 1969 films of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the performers and their roles meshed in sinewy portrayals of a gentle teacher leading a noble, pathos-laden life. They suffused Chips with an internal power that made it possible for audiences to savor his victories and cry over his defeats without feeling they'd been had. Depp does something similar - and comparable - as Barrie. He long ago showed his capacity for the higher make-believe in a string of collaborations with Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow). But in this movie about the higher make-believe, he displays the depths of Depp.

David Magee's script (from Allan Knee's play The Man Who Was Peter Pan) and Marc Forster's direction are sometimes tender to the point of ineffectuality. It's a negative victory that despite the word "Neverland" and the closeness of Barrie's relationship with the boys, you never suspect the writer of perversion; Barrie's shock when his pal Arthur Conan Doyle (Ian Hart) brings up rumors of pedophilia is both genuine and persuasive. But even at this level of tact, the filmmakers are unsuccessful at either quelling the suspicion that Barrie is downright sexless or confronting it dramatically.

Winslet is an ardent presence, even in the role of a mourning mother with an ominous cough. You want to know more of what her character means to the utterly devoted Barrie. And

there's no kick to the portrait of Barrie's marriage. If this couple is on the rocks, the rocks are floating in a soft drink.

What apart from Mary's beauty (and in this respect Mitchell is well cast) drew these two together? From the start, Mary wants Barrie to sit next to her in a theater box at a premiere of his play, while he would rather spy on the performance from the wings. She's anxious to meet the Davies as an influential family (Sylvia Davies' father is author George du Maurier and her mother, played by Julie Christie, is the reigning diva of high-society do-gooders) while he wants to gambol with the kids. It's all summed up when he and Mary turn routinely into separate bedrooms.

The most touching domestic shot is of Barrie's great big dog Porthos sleeping next to him and pulling up his own bedsheets - a move Barrie tries to insinuate into Peter Pan. Barrie instructs the actor playing the stage dog Nana to draw the children's sheets up with his teeth. The performer protests that his dog head has no teeth. Barrie's wise, humorous producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), frayed by the mounting of an unprecedented fantasy, quips, "You can have mine."

Hoffman is at his spryest as Frohman, and there's a wavering, hesitant charm to the theatrical scenes. At times, Forster and company approach the period poetry of Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy. But both in the rehearsal scenes and in the moments of fantasy suffusing the characters' real lives, Forster holds back on releasing the full humor and magic of illusion.

Luckily, there is a pay-off - and it's so lustrous and transporting that every moviegoer should discover it fresh. Forster does ultimately find Neverland. Still, the glory of the movie is Depp, who achieves his own immortality.

Finding Neverland

Starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet and Julie Christie

Directed by Marc Forster

Released by Miramax

Rated PG

Time 101 minutes

Sun Score ***1/2

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