Producers: Sam Tipper-Hale, Peter Touche and Livia De Paolis Director: Livia De Paolis Screenplay: Livia De Paolis Cast: Livia De Paolis, Julian Ovenden, Parker Sawyers, Louis Partridge, Emily Carey, Ella-Rae Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Iain Glen and Joely Richardson Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Few ostensibly simple children’s fantasies have prompted so many, and so varied offshoots than J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play about Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up. There have been adaptations (live-action and animation), musicalizations, continuations and spin-offs of different sorts; their quality, of course, has been inconsistent, to put it mildly.
One of the aspects of the tale that’s become increasingly prevalent in modern re-imaginings centers on the female characters, Wendy Darling and her descendants. Actually that’s not an entirely recent preoccupation: Barrie himself wrote a short piece, “When Wendy Grew Up: An Afterthought” in 1908. In it Peter returns to the Darling home years after his initial visit to find Wendy grown up and married but her daughter Jane willing to go with him, to be followed as time passes by her daughter as well. It provided the seed for “Return to Never Land,” Disney’s 2002 sequel to its 1953 animated adaptation of the original, but can be seen in something truer to Barrie’s version in a short scene that P.J. Hogan filmed for his 2003 live-action “Peter Pan” but omitted from the final cut; it’s available, however, in unfinished form as a bonus on the DVD of that movie.
Barrie’s “Afterthought” also served, to much darker purpose, as the premise of the 2003 novel by Laurie Fox that Livia De Paolis has adapted for this film. Fox and De Paolis employ Pan as emblematic of immature men who seduce women and then abandon them with empty promises of return. He becomes a baleful presence in the lives of a succession of Darling women, each generation suffering from his sporadic interventions in their lives.
Peter is not, in this telling, a mischievous kid, but a handsome heartthrob of eighteen or so, played by Louis Partridge, who was Millie Bobby Brown’s confederate in Netflix’s “Enola Homes.” He appeared first to the “original” Wendy (Siobhán Howlett), and then to her daughter, now the elderly Grand Nana (Vanessa Redgrave), who tells the story to her young granddaughter Wendy (Amalia Minto). As a teen (Emily Caray) this Wendy is enchanted by Peter, but he leaves her with an assurance that he’ll return. But he doesn’t, of course, and when Wendy grows up in the person of De Paolis, she’s haunted by the memory of him, even after she marries Adam (Parker Sawyers), a musician whose irresponsibility puts him in the same man-child category. The grown Wendy is also troubled because her mother Jane (Joely Richardson), who was also visited by Peter, has long been absent from her life, leaving her to be raised by her overprotective father Clayton (Julian Ovenden).
It’s this traumatized Wendy, along with her rebellious daughter Berry (Ella-Rae Smith), who’s the focus of the narrative. Can she save Berry from being misused by Peter the way she was? The return of Jane for her mother’s funeral makes the situation even more fraught.
There are also periodic appearances by a leering, lecherous Hook (Iain Glen), who apparently represents the mature carnality that Pan only suggests. His pursuit of the young Darling girls takes the film into genuinely unpleasant territory, though at best the rest of the picture has a pallid, uninspired feel, with even the “fantasy” scenes featuring Pan (frolicking in the fields, with some decidedly third-rate flying effects) generating no Barrie magic.
Presumably Fox’s book has special meaning for De Paolis, but her adaptation is a dark, muddled take on the Peter Pan syndrome that never conveys its themes with much clarity or insight. She does manage to secure fairly good performances from most of her cast, even the youngsters, with Redgrave bringing an ethereal beauty to her scenes; the usually reliable Glen, however, chews the scenery much too ferociously, and Richardson seems uninvolved.
De Paolis miscalculates terribly, however, by casting herself in the lead role. She’s a mediocre actress to begin with, and her accent doesn’t fit the part; but she certainly did herself no favors by attempting to direct herself as well. The result is a double whammy that sinks whatever chance the movie might have had.
The picture must have been made on a shoestring, and that shows in Gini Godwin’s production design and Anna Patarakina’s drab cinematography, which does however aim to lend some luminosity to the fantasy sequences. Marc Canham’s score tries to add a bit of oomph to the proceedings, but the editing credited by Miguel E. Rebagliato and David Freeman never manages to achieve coherence, let alone dramatic impact.
Peter Pan has survived a good deal of abuse over the years—even his depiction in the recent “Chip ‘N Dale Rescue Rangers” movie—and he’ll survive this sad misfire. One suspects, though, that had Fox’s book been taken up by someone more gifted than De Paolis, it might have yielded something interesting.