Goodbye Christopher Robin, 2017.
Directed by Simon Curtis.
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Alex Lawther.
The story behind Winnie the Pooh. Inspired by his son’s toys, author A. A. Milne creates a magical series of books that become an international success. But for the young Christopher Robin, and the rest of the family, there’s a price to pay.
“My childhood was wonderful. It was growing up that was hard.” The words belong to the Christopher Robin of the title, now a young man reflecting on his earlier years. They weren’t always idyllic. Nor is Simon Curtis’s bio-pic of A. A. Milne’s (Domhnall Gleeson) relationship with his son. Anybody expecting a cuddly, family film is in for a surprise.
Yes, it’s about a family, but it’s not all jollity. The dark side of the story, Milne’s experiences during World War I especially, are never far from the surface and the relationship between him and his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), has more than a few rocky moments. Despite the title, the focus is on Milne himself – “Blue” to his wife and son – and the emotional scars of war: any loud, sudden noises prompt flashbacks to the trenches and outbursts of anger. He’s always been a writer, but now he needs to find his voice again, initially aiming to write an anti-war book. But spending time with the young Christopher Robin (Will Tilston) encourages him to write something that will bring happiness and become unexpectedly popular.
To the outside world, the boy has an idyllic childhood. The house in the country, the long woodland walks with his father, lots of toys, but it’s lacking in other ways. His father is distant, always wanting to be writing, and it takes a long time for the two to form any kind of meaningful bond. His mother, while appearing to be affectionate, is equally at arm’s length, leaving for London at the drop of a hat. His androgynous appearance, and that pageboy haircut, is a constant reminder that she wanted a daughter. A boy was never part of her plan, especially an intelligent one who is thrust into the public spotlight whether he likes it or not. His experiences may be an early example of celebrity status, but it feels all too contemporary.
Visually, the film matches its idyllic setting – soft focus woods, beautiful house, rolling hills. The sketches and watercolours for the book are beautifully re-created and it all looks lush, bathing in a warm glow. But it’s not one of nostalgia because, as we’ve learnt, the reality is rather different.
Director Curtis has chosen his cast wisely, getting an eye-opening performance from Domhnall Gleeson as Milne himself. We’ve grown used to seeing him in supporting roles – most recently in American Made and mother! – but here he’s in the spotlight and gives a performance of subtlety, depth and feeling. Will Tilston makes an appealing younger Christopher Robin, with his intelligence and bewilderment shining through and he insists on your attention when he’s on screen.
Goodbye Christopher Robin manages to avoid obvious sentimental pitfalls, creating the feeling of a memory. But it’s not a selective one, as memories often are: instead we’re presented with something more objective but that’s also good-looking and tender. It isn’t a tear jerker as such, but it’s certainly moving and satisfying.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★