As you might imagine, I am often asked for my opinion on the films I see. Inevitably I’m called upon to compare the film with some other work, which is at best quite unfair and at worst simply impossible to do. But I’ve gotten good at the game. So let us play it now. We’ll call Neverwas One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest meets Alice In Wonderland. Unfair, some might say, for they are actually the very same story. When you look at it carefully enough, they really are, although important differences do exist. My point i… all of this nonsense is this: There really is a razor fine line between insanity and fantasy. Neverwas blurs this distinction to an almost indefinable difference.
When Dr. Zack Riley (Eckhart) arrived at Millford Mental Health Institute, which once housed his father, he had no idea that his journey would take him full circle to a childhood he had been running from. Zack’s father (Nolte) was the author of a famous children’s story titled Neverwas. Zack has been running from Neverwas ever since. He changed his name and refused his inheritance of the book’s royalties. Here at Millford, Zack discovers a rather remarkable patient. Gabriel (McKellen) is not only intimately familiar with Neverwas and Zack himself, but claims to be her King. Zack finds himself confronted by a place he always believed came from his father’s imagination. It’s a wonderful story with an almost magical potential. Unfortunately this film takes too long to develop and never quite hits its stride. The film travels a trail of breadcrumbs laid out in such painstakingly slow motion that it is our patience and not our imagination that is finally put to the test. Writer/directors often commit the fatal sin of overcomplicating what often plays best in simpler terms. Joshua Michael Stern is guilty of it here. The film becomes too muddled, trying to show too much history and never trusting its audience enough to find their own way. You should know this IS NOT a children’s film.
The only thing that makes this film even remotely worth the 89 minute investment is the skillful performance of Ian McKellen. This is perhaps his most compelling display of what really amounts to a one man play. When McKellen is acting no one else is on the screen. I can definitely see this tale told on a stage with just McKellen to tell it all. Nick Nolte is also actually at his best in the snippets we see of him. His character is dead by now and only revealed through flashbacks and media footage. Maybe Nick and Ian could do a two man play on the genesis of Neverwas. I would pay good money to see that.
Neverwas is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. This film is almost always quite dark. While I can understand the atmosphere they were looking for, it doesn’t work well at all with the film’s slow pace. Fortunately the print quality is pretty good. Black levels are a little better than average most of the time. Colors are a little soft, owing mostly to the dark palette provided. There were no film defects or compression artifacts that I could see.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is usually unnecessary here and used sparingly. There’s a lot of dialogue which is presented well. I thought the musical cues could have been stronger at times. There’s almost no bottom end to speak of. This film lives most of its life in the mid ranges. Again, something you don’t want to do in a slow paced effort. The audio never excites so adds to the burden on our patience.
What would you do if you discovered a land you always believed to be imaginary were real? That’s the premise this film appears to set up but sadly never delivers upon. One character tells us that sometimes the story finds the writer instead of the other way around. Neverwas should have kept on looking, because there is a good story to be told here, but Stern was obviously not the man to tell it. If there was something here other than two powerful performances wasted, I never saw it. I should have been able to, because “I look for signs and signals all of the time”.