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Coming-of-age stories that come from very different places, Finding Neverland and Postmen in the Mountains are smart, elegant, and justifiably sentimental. Both movies employ appropriate modes: The former, loosely based on the life of Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie, is Edwardian and theatrical; the latter, set among the peasants of mountainous Hunan, is Confucian and aphoristic. No surprises, then, except in execution. Each film startles simply by being a job unusually well done.
Finding Neverland was adapted from a play, which is usually a bad omen for a film. This is a story of the theater, however, so cinematic naturalism is not germane. Director Marc Foster, who conjured down-home grit much less convincingly in Monster’s Ball, sprinkles fairy dust all about, propels children aloft, opens interior doors to reveal enchanted gardens, and—in the opening scene—douses a London audience with rain. In this stagy alternate reality, the film’s considerable liberties with Barrie’s biography seem fitting.
The rain falls on Barrie (Johnny Depp) and his latest play because it’s an opening-night flop. That’s clear not only to the author, but also to his gruff yet not-so-secretly magnanimous producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman, making amends for Hook), and Barrie’s impatient, bourgeois wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell). Barrie needs new inspiration, and he quickly finds it. Romping in the park with his bear-sized dog, the writer meets the four Llewelyn Davies boys and their harried but nurturing mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet). The youngest, Peter, has recovered least well from the recent death of their father. Soon, Barrie and the kids are playing at being pirates, Indians, and, of course, theatrical players. Sylvia approves of these fancies, even if Mary and Barrie’s pal Arthur Conan Doyle (Ian Hart) are dubious about the intensity of the playwright’s new attachment. The person who disapproves most strenuously is the boys’ grandmother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), who gains more control over the household as the vivacious Sylvia becomes ill.
Yes, Peter’s mother is going to die, although quietly and with dignity. (This isn’t just an Edwardian tale; it’s also a PG one.) But then the film’s premise is that death is Neverland, eternal home of Barrie’s young brother David, the boy who truly never grew up. Maybe Peter Pan’s creator never made this exact connection, but it must have dwelt somewhere in his mind. Peter Pan does deal explicitly with mortality, which the play’s namesake (played onstage here by Kelly MacDonald) terms “an awfully big adventure”—a phrase that 10 years ago became the title of Mike Newell’s much darker backstage film.
Underplaying for once, Depp depicts Barrie as an amiable misfit, estranged from proper English society—embodied in his disapproving wife and the kids’ grandmother—by his childlike imagination and gentle brogue. According to David Magee’s script, which derives from Allan Knee’s The Man Who Was Peter Pan, the Scottish-born author led a benign uprising, aided by assorted kids, Celts, and other outsiders. Llewelyn Davies is no English surname, the bemused but loyal Frohman is Jewish and American, and at a crucial moment Barrie musters a squadron of London orphans—lost boys and girls—to the rescue of his theatrical testament to childhood.
Skeptics will find Finding Neverland glib and tidy, even antiseptic. And it most decidedly is not the true story of how J.M. Barrie came to write his most enduring work. (To reveal just two anomalies: There were actually five Llewelyn Davies boys, and their father was still alive when they met the playwright.) There’s a certain kind of entertainment, however, whose charm comes from observing a perfectly tuned mechanism at work, and this movie is a lovely example. Everything meshes, whether in the cause of fantasy, tragedy, or sham biography. The film’s final run-through of Barrie’s play, with death underscoring every note, stunningly melds Edwardian whimsy with poignance. You may not believe a boy can fly, but you’ll likely accept the original production of Peter Pan as both a personal catharsis and the paramount special-effects epic of 1903.
In cultures that are still influenced by Confucian ethics, bureaucrat is a most honorable role. So when the younger protagonist of Postmen in the Mountains begins trying on his new job as a rural mail carrier, he suggests with tentative pride that he will now be a government official. Not at all, replies his father, the man who’s about to give up his 112-kilometer route to the younger man; only the postmaster qualifies as an official, Dad says, and he’s a minor one. But the father doesn’t add the information that will become clear over the course of the film: that to the residents of the region’s remote villages, the postman is far more important than any emperor, president, or cadre leader.
Postmen in the Mountains is the directorial debut of Huo Jianqi, who served as art director on Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Tibetan big-sky epic, The Horse Thief; although the movie was released in China in 1999, it started appearing in American movie houses only last month. Yet it’s a film of potentially wide appeal, a sweet-natured and memorably picturesque tale that’s well worth the attention of mainstream filmgoers who normally forgo subtitled pictures. In addition to its visual beauty and universal father-son themes, it’s a movie that—even more than Finding Neverland—should appeal to dog-lovers everywhere.
It must mean something that the film’s noble canine, Laoer, is the only character who has a name. Laoer has faithfully walked the strenuous, three-day route with the physically exhausted father (Teng Rujun) who’s now ceding his mailbag to his earnest, callow son (Liu Ye). And it’s the dog who sets the essential story in motion, by refusing to follow the younger man as he begins the route for the first time. To assuage Laoer, the father decides to come along on his son’s inaugural journey. As the story unfolds, the wisdom of this decision is repeatedly demonstrated. Both Dad and Laoer (whose name reportedly is a common Chinese term for the “second son”) have much to show the first-timer, not just about delivering mail and negotiating the mountains, but also about simple humanity. The son’s lessons for his father are less practical, but just as important to the story: With the help of quick flashbacks, he recounts how he grew up estranged from the parent he rarely saw.
Some American critics have criticized Huo’s generational parable for its supposed politics, suggesting that it whitewashes rural poverty or glamorizes Commie functionaries. Yet the film, which was adapted from a story by Peng Jianming, couldn’t be less in the spirit of custom-shredding Maoism. It extols venerable Asian notions of duty while it evokes traditional Chinese landscape painting.
Although not every detail is convincing—that purportedly back-breaking mailbag doesn’t seem to be very heavy—the film has emotional weight. Modest yet profound, Postmen in the Mountains illustrates how sons accept and adapt their father’s responsibilities. Where Dad plodded his route in silence, his son will be walking with the radio on.CP