Growing up in Switzerland, Forster experienced several significant losses at an early age. His brother committed suicide and his father and grandmother all died within three months of each other during one horrible, grief-splattered year.
It's as if that early accretion of mortality has seeped so deeply into Forster's bones, he's helpless to escape it. The cold hand death has laid on his soul has imprinted his films with something deeply personal and unique that separates mere directors from auteurs.
Padding around a hotel in his bare feet, sporting a shaved head, jeans and T-shirt, Forster looks more like an electronica DJ than the director of some of the most incisive, deeply felt films in recent years.
Heartfelt and profound, Finding Neverland returns to the theme of death established in Forster's earliest works, Everything Put Together, about a new mother whose friends brutally shun her after her baby dies, and his follow-up, Monster's Ball. That film created an entire tapestry of death, portraying two Southerners (Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton) haunted by their sons' violent ends. But the film also dealt with the subject matter metaphorically, in the death of feeling, which racism entails.
Finding Neverland is an imagined biography of J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), the Scottish playwright famous for penning Peter Pan, and how his friendship with four fatherless boys and their beautiful mother, Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet), in 1904 England might have inspired and fueled Barrie's creative and emotional life.
A cathartic, adult appreciation of a childhood favorite, Finding Neverland finds an explanation for Peter Pan's endurance in its timeless theme of children navigating the perilous border between childhood and adulthood. The story marks that passage from child to grownup as a first acknowledgment of one's own mortality.
"In a sense, I wanted to give this whole world a feeling of immortality," says Forster of the world of fantasy and playacting, which defines Barrie's relationship to the Davies children. Depp is sweet and fragile as a grown man who slips easily into reassuring make-believe. Returning to the unfettered innocence of childhood, Barrie suddenly morphs into an Indian or a pirate, transitions Forster creates in brilliantly fluid fantasy sequences.
Barrie sees painful echoes of his own early experience of grief in the Davies children, prematurely touched by the death of their father. Especially poignant is the relationship that develops between Barrie and the youngest of the children, Peter Davies (Freddie Highmore), a tragically precocious, heartbreakingly stoic child made hard and bitter by his father's death; the boy resists Barrie's world of fantasy and escapism.
That notion of childhood as some intense, enchanted place certainly appealed to Forster, who had a very happy one, spent playing in the forests or skiing the mountains in his native Switzerland.
"As children, we are so imaginative and so creative, and once you say goodbye to your childhood and become an adult, you have so many responsibilities, you have so much work to do, just going through daily life..." laments Forster. "I think that's kind of sad. I think it's important to take time for oneself and be imaginative and creative."
The film's screenwriter, David Magee (working from the play by Allan Knee), has said that the birth of his first child and the death of his father made him connect to this story.
"You know, what's interesting is when I read the script the first time," reveals Forster, "I was crying at the end. That had never happened to me. So when I made the movie, I thought, "I have to be very careful to restrain everything. It can't be sentimental.'"
Finding Neverland bypasses easy sentiment for a far more profound feeling. There are no reassurances or kindly hugs passed between Barrie and the children in some flowery finale. Part of the bond between Barrie and the children is their shared appreciation of the power of death and the lack of platitudes or denials shellacked over that truth. What Barrie offers the children instead of denial is inner resources of creativity to stem the tide of grief. Barrie identifies with the children because he so viscerally remembers what it felt like to lose his innocence, and he despairs at seeing it crumbling away from the boys.
It's not hard to see how Forster might identify with Barrie, both in shared loss and in using creation as an antidote. "It's also letting go of grief," says Forster of the creative process. "And also embracing it in a different way. It's sort of like a more enlightened way."
Like all of his films, Finding Neverland is about the folly of denying death and about the bittersweet truth that when you face death, you can truly appreciate the fleeting marvel of life.