Affecting a skillful Scottish accent, Johnny Depp is intermittently convincing as the enigmatic Barrie, an artist with a childlike spirit. Glimpses of his troubled marriage to status-conscious Mary (Radha Mitchell) raise more questions about Barrie's emotional makeup than they explain, and for the most part he remains a cipher. The playwright finds solace from his domestic woes, and from his latest London theater flop, in his friendship with young widow Sylvia (Winslet) and her four sons. He entertains the boys with games of whimsy and adventure while Sylvia's mother (Christie, wonderfully acidic) makes her disapproval crystal-clear; her daughter needs a husband, not a platonic soul mate.
The writer connects especially with Peter (Freddie Highmore), an old soul in a boy's body who, in turn, is inspired to write his own stories. At the same time, Barrie is taxing stage impresario Charles Frohman (Hoffman, conveying volumes with the slightest gesture) with his strange new production and its pirates, fairies and flying children, not to mention the part of a sheepdog nanny.
David Magee's script, based on the play "The Man Who Was Peter Pan" by Allan Knee, offers fine sequences of social observation. But it spells out its emotional themes about childhood with a jarring lack of subtlety. Young Highmore, who will reteam with Depp in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," delivers a lovely performance as Peter, but even a seasoned pro would have trouble transcending the big theme-laden scenes the script requires of him. Self-conscious toniness and message-mongering are the undoing of "Neverland," which finds itself only sporadically. Starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman, Radha Mitchell and Freddie Highmore. Directed by Marc Forster. Written by David Magee. Produced by Richard N. Gladstein and Nellie Bellflower. A Miramax release. Period drama. Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language. Running time: 101 min