Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Freddie Highmore
Written by: Allan Knee, David Magee
Directed by: Marc Forster
“Inspired by” the true story of J. M. Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys and how they helped him to create Peter Pan, Finding Neverland plays fast and loose with the historical facts, is plotted with a paint-by-numbers predictability, and frequently descends into corniness. However, it tells a story that’s just a bit unusual, and especially interesting from an ace perspective. Speculation in the ace community about Barrie’s possible asexuality certainly biased my viewing of the film, but even if you don’t read James as asexual, it contains plenty of ace-friendly moments and themes. And if you do, then it tells a rare and compelling story of an ace person’s life and loves.
At base, the film is a love story about a grown man and four pre-adolescent children. Modern paranoia about adult-child relationships makes this touchy territory, but the film makes it clear that this is a platonic love affair. James enjoys entertaining the boys with his stories and playing imaginative games with them; these games are an escape into the childish world of fantasy, not an initiation into the adult world of sexuality. Another love affair takes place between James and the boys’ mother, Sylvia. You might expect this to be more conventionally sexual, but it, too, appears to be platonic. There are some hints at romantic tension, but they are never given a chance to develop, and may only exist on Sylvia’s side. Moreover, the adult friendship never supersedes the relationship with the boys. James’s love for Sylvia grows out of his love for her children, not the other way around.
These close yet chaste relationships do not pass without comment. James’s friend Arthur Conan Doyle warns him of the gossip surrounding his association with the family. Sylvia’s mother, Emma du Maurier, attempts to dissuade Sylvia from involvement with James, expressing anxiety that a scandal could hurt her future marriage prospects. Though aware of these concerns, James and Sylvia remain stubbornly indifferent to them. When Arthur hints at the unsavoury interpretation some give to his relationship with the boys, James is horrified. “How could anyone think something so evil?” he asks, insisting that no one could believe such nonsense. After a dinner hosted at the Barries’ house, James’s wife and Sylvia’s mother each lament that the other is not a promising social connection. James and Sylvia both insist that they aren’t interested in social advancement, but value the friendship for its own sake.
As time goes on, James integrates more thoroughly with the family, yet, while they take to thinking of him as “Uncle Jim”, his exact position within it remains ambiguous. Sylvia sums up the situation when she says, “We’ve pretended for some time now that you’re a part of this family.” This might seem like a repudiation, yet she goes on to say that it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, because James has come to mean so much to all of them.
This ambiguity connects James thematically with asexuality. His relationship with the Davies family defies categorisation. Is he a friend? A lover? A family member? Or, to use a modern term, is he a queerplatonic partner? Some of this uncertainty seems to be the result of James’s peculiar personality. Though the reasons are never made explicit, there is a sense that something is keeping him from forming a more formal, conventional attachment to the family. Like many asexuals, he does not adapt well to heteronormative relationships, instead forming unconventional bonds that are not easily named or understood.
Evidence of James’s literal asexuality can be gleaned from his interactions with his wife, Mary. Though they are subtle, there are plenty of hints that the marriage is a sexless one. In one scene, the spouses rather pointedly retire to separate bedrooms. In another, James is shown waking up in bed – with his dog. Even the few moments of genuine affection between them are conspicuously chaste. While some of this aloofness could be chalked up to Edwardian decorum, there are other hints that Mary may be suffering from sexual frustration. When James suggests providing assistance to Sylvia, Mary snarks, “Maybe she can send over some of the things we’ve run short of.” It is not hard to infer that she is missing something from James beyond just his company.
While Mary is clearly jealous of James’s friendship with the Davieses, James seems relatively unfussed by Mary’s extramarital relationships. When he comes home to find Mary deep in conversation with Gilbert Cannan, he immediately sees the implications, but refuses to take the bait. James is not totally naïve. His responses to Mary in this scene and others indicate that he is aware of sexual jealousy as a script. But he seems to find it alien to his own nature.
Mary is not totally unsympathetic. She admits to having entered her marriage with unrealistic expectations, and her desire for more attention from her husband is understandable. One of the strengths of the screenplay is that James seems to recognise his own deficiencies as a lover but never apologises for them. He knows he is not the kind of man his wife needs; he cannot be Sylvia’s husband; nor, as Peter consistently reminds him, can he be the boys’ father. But he also knows that he cannot change himself. He can only offer his distinctive brand of friendship and hope that it is accepted.
Finding Neverland is a bitter-sweet story, marked by both joy and bereavement. James’s marriage eventually dissolves, and he loses Sylvia to lung cancer, but he remains close to the boys, becoming one of their legal guardians. When he tells Mrs du Maurier that he loved her daughter and loves her grandsons, it is a sincere love confession, one he is prepared to back-up with action. If they had made James’s asexuality explicit, this could have been a beautiful asexual love story with a rare asexual protagonist. As it is, it still comes closer than any other movie I’ve seen.
3 Stars; 4 Aces