At a time when deconstruction and demystification are all the moviemaking rage, it's sweet indeed to celebrate the opening of two deeply satisfying pictures that bravely trumpet the healing properties of artifice. Hammering the point home are twin lead performances that rank among the best their respective gender classes have to offer this holiday awards season. (And while it's probably a coincidence that both films' titles are gerunds, obsessive-compulsives are free to take it as further evidence of a common mindset.)
For long stretches, Finding Neverland seems to exist largely to rescue its title utopia from the pit of Michael Jackson-inspired innuendo. And that's a pretty worthy agenda in and of itself. In dramatizing the process by which playwright J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) based his Peter Pan mythos on the enthusiastic play of a quartet of real-life brothers, the movie confronts head-on the charges of pedophilia that have tarnished the writer's legacy then quickly dispels them with a finger-wagging admonition that we should all be ashamed of ourselves. Our innocence reclaimed for us, we're free to register pure (literally) enjoyment as Barrie drifts away from his fatally practical wife (Radha Mitchell) and into the infinitely more sympathetic household of widowed mother Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet). It's a place defined by dinnertime shenanigans and backyard games of cowboys and Injuns, and being there gradually resuscitates the pixyish writer's stalled muse.
Depp could have run amok with the story's central conceit that Barrie is a child in an adult's body, but the performance he gives is leagues beyond ordinary mugging. He plays Barrie like the opposite side of the Ed Wood coin: an enthusiastic, inquisitive soul whose most anarchic impulses are held in control either by an intrinsic shyness or an acquired fear of failure (or perhaps both).
Director Marc Forster (of the totally, utterly dissimilar Monster's Ball) is obviously enraptured by the propensity of imagination to keep grown-ups forever young a preoccupation that inspires numerous whimsical fantasy sequences. Not all of them, it must be said, are models of economy. The simple sight of the Davies children bouncing on their beds would have been enough to show where Barrie got the idea of flying tots; having him imagine them hurtling out the window and into the welcoming sky is simply overkill. But for every setup that goes too far, there are another three that connect with heartbreaking elegance like a brief and bittersweet vignette that illustrates the vast difference between Mr. and Mrs. Barrie's mental living spaces. Though the movie doesn't always give us enough credit for being able to reach the conclusion on our own, it still assembles a persuasive case that there's a Neverland waiting inside every one of us, if only we're willing to look for it.
Being Julia arrives at a similar conclusion but gets there via a road of sly sarcasm. A W. Somerset Maugham story brought to the screen by Hungarian-born director István Szabó (Sunshine, Taking Sides), this tragicomedy traces the emotional fall and rise of Julia Lambert (Annette Bening), grande dame of the 1930s London stage. Tops in her field but unfulfilled at home her marriage to director Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons) has long lacked a physical component Julia is an easy target for the freely offered adulation of Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), a young American fan who woos her unashamedly. Their ensuing affair unlocks something of a youthful optimism in the normally (and hilariously) brittle Julia, blinding her to the reality that Tom's boyish devotion may not be as guileless as it appears.
The rude awakening she experiences sets the stage for a wild revenge fantasy, but it also forces Julia into an overdue reconciliation of the synthetic and genuine halves of her psyche if the latter can be said to still exist after at least a quarter-century in the theater. A character like this one has more layers than a viewer can count, and Bening is just brilliant at conveying the idea that Julia is always acting even when she's staring deep into her makeup mirror and reciting supposedly private thoughts. (Given the quality of Bening's work, it's too bad the movie slightly rushes Julia's initial transition from haughty diva to lovesick paramour; one can only wonder what miracles the actress could have wreaked with a slower, more involving metamorphosis.)
A lesser film might content itself with finding cruel humor in the "phony" Julia's comeuppance at Tom's hands, but this one isn't so quick to equate acting skill with subhumanity. The character is haunted by the image of her deceased mentor (Michael Gambon), who she imagines as constantly coaching her to overcome life's myriad trials with carefully thought-out ripostes and responses. While he'd clearly prefer her to be "on" all the time, she's increasingly unsure that a calculated presentation is always more personally beneficial than extemporaneous honesty.
The movie's strength is that it doesn't ask us to choose between the two. As Julia struggles to find a happy medium between artificiality and authenticity, she instead discovers that cultivating one only enhances the other. It's the true blessing of living as a creative professional. Or to put it another way, the one thing better than living in Neverland is being free to come and go as you please.
(Being Julia opens Friday, Nov. 19, at Regal Winter Park Village Stadium 20; Finding Neverland opens Wednesday, Nov. 24, at various area theaters)