July 19, 2007
Neverwas (2005) is one of those cinematic oddities that somehow managed to slip under the radar despite its star-studded cast. For whatever reason (usually internal politics), Miramax bought the film two years ago and decided not to get behind it. Reviews, at the time, compared it unfavourably to Finding Neverland (2004) which is probably why it was buried for so long and has now quietly been released on DVD.
Psychiatrist Zach Riley (Eckhart) takes a job at Millwood, an institution that his father (Nolte) frequented. His father was the author of Neverwas, a much-admired children’s book and also the basis for Zach’s fantasy world when he was a child. Millwood is facing tough financial times. The building is run-down and the man who runs it (Hurt) even tries to discourage Zach from taking the job. However, he is determined to figure out why his father committed suicide. Once there, Zach meets Gabriel Finch (McKellen), a mute patient who lives in an alternate reality that mirrors the one in Neverwas. He finally breaks his silence with Zach and during their first session together he talks plenty albeit cryptically.
Zach dismisses Neverwas as “a silly fairy tale,” and is embarrassed by the fanboy-ish adoration of a grad student named Maggie (Murphy). Zach is tormented by dreams of his childhood and of his father. His job at the same institution that treated his father is his way of dealing with the past as he uses his position to dig through the records room. He reads his father’s file hoping that within lies clues to the man’s behaviour. The deeper Zach digs into his father’s past and the more he talks to Gabriel, he realizes that the patient holds a pivotal key to the origins of Neverwas.
This film is steeped in magic realism much like The Fisher King (1991) or The Mighty (1998) with protagonists trying to cope with a traumatic past. Gabriel is a delusional man who lives in a fantasy world much like Parry in The Fisher King. He’s convinced that he is the king of Neverwas and that Zach is the boy meant to rescue him like Jack was destined to help Parry in Terry Gilliam’s film. However, Neverwas refreshingly diverges from other examples of this genre by not recreating the fantasy world that Gabriel imagines he lives in. Instead, the filmmakers rely on our imagination.
Ian McKellen gets the juicy role of the eccentric mental patient that provides clues to Zach’s past while Brittany Murphy exudes girl-next-door charm as Maggie, the biggest fan of Neverwas. Nick Nolte is well cast as the fiercely driven author who refuses to explain his book’s meanings because it should speak for itself. He’s got that great, gravelly voice and commanding presence that instantly makes you believe he’s a brilliant but troubled writer. Aaron Eckhart is the central figure that holds everything together and we are along for the ride, piecing together the mystery with him. As the film progresses and more of Zach’s past and that of his family’s is revealed, we come to sympathize with his plight – his desire to achieve closure about his father’s death. Eckhart delivers a strong performance – a nice addition to an already diverse body of work.
Neverwas is beautifully shot. The local pub that Zach visits is bathed in a warm, golden light and this is where he meets Maggie. Director Joshua Michael Stern paints the whole town with an autumnal brush complete with vibrant reds, yellows and browns that look absolutely stunning. The cinematography vividly evokes autumn in the northeastern United States when the foliage changes colour – a last fiery burnout before winter arrives.
The film explores the line between madness and genius, between fantasy and reality as Zach meets people who are not always who they seem to be, including his own father. Neverwas loses its mind a little during its climax as logic goes flying temporarily out the window and the enchanting spell it cast is broken with a resolution that is a little too tidy and convenient, marring an otherwise entertaining movie.