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Finding Neverland ***(out of four)

Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet and Dustin Hoffman in a story of how J.M. Barrie came to write "Peter Pan." Directed by Marc Forster. Rated PG, now playing in area theaters.

Tinker Bell is dying. Her little firefly light is flickering dim.

So Peter Pan tells the unsuspecting children in the audience that Tink "thinks she could get well again if the children believed in fairies. ... If you believe, clap your hands!"

The fearless Irish novelist and critic Brigid Brophy called that dramatic moment "moral torture inflicted by a wanton -- but highly skilled -- sentimentalist . . . if I could see any sense in cencorship at all, 'Peter Pan' would be my first and only candidate."

According to film critic Andrew Sarris, Alfred Hitchcock once told him that moment is one of the high points in dramatic art in the Western World (given Hitchcock's penchant for ruthless audience manipulation, I believe it.)

I'm with Brophy. I never clapped or wanted to. I never encouraged my daughter to when she was little. Brophy is spot on, I think: "I will not accept for a moment that J.M. Barrie had any more belief in fairies than -- well, than the children in his audience."

In other words, at the end of "Peter Pan," sentimental bully Sir James has really encouraged children to believe in nothing: neither fairies nor drama or, for that matter, death itself. Anyone who truly believed in both childhood innocence and the genuine power of art, would be as livid as Brophy, if they thought about it.

The sentimentalities of Marc Forster's overt Oscar-bait "Finding Neverland" bludgeon the audience into misting up as assuredly as Barrie's "Peter Pan" bludgeons the kiddies into clapping to save Tinkerbell. The movie -- and its skill in its final hour -- forced my eyes to wet, just as it wanted to.

This is a well-made movie. It gets to you. For most of it, we watch J. M. Barrie - Sir James, after "Peter Pan" hit the boards and transformed children's entertainment forever - befriend the four stricken sons of a widow who is herself dying of a very decorous case of movie disease (that is, she occasionally coughs too much at dramatically inopportune moments, thereby indicating that when the camera is off her, she'll perish with much less behavioral control.)

Johnny Depp plays Barrie with as much wry and beguiling charm as he can contribute to the cause - which is quite a bit. It's a given now that he is one of the best, if most peculiar, film actors we've got (a fact known long ago with "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," and "Edward Scissorhands").

Kate Winslet plays the boys' dying mother, which lends to the act of dying just the proper preposterous unreality in this pseudo-Victorian fantasy (it's based on a play called "The Man Who Was Peter Pan" by Allen Knee.) The idea here is that the ever-fanciful Mr. Barrie gives the boys the morale lift of their own imaginations after they've been beaten into depression by their father's death, worries about their mother and the not-so-tender mercies of their battle-axe grandmother. (Would you believe Julie Christie?)

"Torture" may be a bit harsh a word for the sentimental ordeal the movie inflicts on the audience but it's certainly from the right neighborhood. That all this is at marked variance with biographical facts about Barrie's life is a given.

When we see Barrie's fictionalized life in "Finding Neverland," his sexless marriage to his ambitious wife (Radha Mitchell) is sinking and his droll relationship to the producer who backs his flops (Dustin Hoffman, the most delightful thing in the movie) is rocky.

You can believe this or not. Put me solidly in the "not" column. The Barrie marriage was doubtless a good deal messier and no one is going to convince me that the man whose view of the British class system was as hard-boiled as Barrie's was in "The Admirable Crichton" was just a kind of freelance Peter Pan in evening clothes.

The conceit here is that the stories he made up for the boys eventually became "Peter Pan," complete with their unappeasable grandmother as the model for Captain Hook. That conceit has a few clever moments but not many, considering how long it's protracted.

The plot set up is, in fact, rather dreary. And the final hour is ruthlessly manipulative.

And yet, and yet . . .

There is a transcendent, exquisitely imagined moment in this otherwise plodding movie. When it comes time for Winslet to actually die in "Finding Neverland," the moment is of surpassing beauty and originality. It's so good that it redeems the stodgy, soggy relentlessness of everything else.

Nor does the movie entirely avoid the suspicions of impropriety in Barrie's escalating relationship with the children (even so, a forerunner of the Michael Jackson case, this isn't.)

It's directed by Marc Forster of "Monster's Ball" who, herein, does a complete stylistic 180-degree turn.

The plod here isn't Forster's fault, it's entirely in the words.

The oddity of this movie is this: After so much sentimental manipulation of one's tear ducts, one should presumably leave the theater feeling cleansed, content, renewed, uplifted by the role of art in the world.

I didn't. I felt used and discarded.

Consider this, then, the sound of one-hand clapping.

Despite all the skill that went into "Finding Neverland," I emphatically do NOT believe.