Film Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin

Simon Curtis’ biopic of AA Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh children’s books, depicts a man haunted by his service in the Great War.
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Simon Curtis’ Goodbye Christopher Robin begins in World War II-era England, when Alan Alexander or “A. A.” Milne and his wife Dorothy “Daphne” Milne, were living in their umbrageous East Sussex home. By this time, the author had written his famous series of children’s books based upon his son’s childhood adventures with his beloved teddy bear, “Winnie-the-Pooh.” Christopher Robin Milne (Will Tilston), once a child celebrity, is now a young man and a soldier in the British Army. As Alan (Domnhall Gleeson) and Daphne (Margot Robbie) receive the news that Christopher is lost and presumed dead, flashes of him as a boy, as “Billy Moon,” appear to the author. The movie shifts to the past, and to Milne’s own story, that of a soldier returning from the “Great War.”

Before World War I, A. A. Milne was a humorist and a popular playwright; as the biopic illustrates, he and Daphne were a well-heeled couple who moved in the upper echelons of London society. When Alan returns from the war, Daphne expects him to write plays again and to resume their social life, but the author is a broken man. He suffers from what was then called “shell shock.” At a party, the popping of a champagne cork reminds him of gunfire. The comedies he once wrote now feel passé. Milne confides in his friend Ernest (Stephen Campbell Moore), who is also a former soldier, that he wishes he could get away from London. Daphne does not like the idea, but Milne tells her that the quiet of the country will allow him to write again. It is not long before Daphne notices that her husband’s “office” in the country house is not getting much use.

Goodbye Christopher Robin portrays Milne as a man who, without his son, might not have found his way back from the abyss. In the movie, Christopher senses his father’s despair, most dramatically in an opening sequence in the woods, when the two come upon a swarm of bees; the buzzing triggers Milne’s battlefield memory of flies feasting on the bodies of soldiers lying in the trenches. Later, overhearing his parents’ arguments over Milne’s writer’s block, Christopher asks his father to write him a story. The resulting tales of a boy and his teddy bear, and other stuffed toys, among them Piglet and Eeyor, who roam the “Hundred Acre Wood,” allow its young readers to explore myriad emotions—for instance, Piglet is thoughtful, although often fearful of the world, and the donkey is pessimistic. Christopher Robin is the adult in this group of anthropomorphic characters, wise and mature.

The film depicts what happened when the public discovered that the boy was modeled on Milne’s real-life son. Christopher was quickly thrust into the spotlight. He became a child star, pressed into doing book tours and interviews; in many ways, he was robbed of his boyhood. As the film indicates, Christopher soon came to resent what he rightfully felt was a form of exploitation. In a wonderfully cinematic scene, nanny Olive and Christopher look on as sacks of mail are emptied onto the floor of his room. Afterward, Olive lectures Alan and Daphne, parents that American audiences will perceive as rather dimwitted, although Curtis wisely leaves open the issue of whether they were or not—upper-crust British families employed nannies in part so their children would not interfere with their social lives.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is both a film about fathers and sons, and about England between the wars. Like many biopics, it benefits from an on-location shoot, in this case at or near the actual locations in East Sussex, including on “Pooh Bridge” that figures prominently in Winnie-the-Pooh stories. The movie’s lush palette, evinced in its skillful production design (by David Roger) and costume design (by Odile Dicks-Mireaux), will make it especially attractive for younger audiences, although not the age group that would be read Winnie-the-Pooh stories. This is family entertainment, for parents and middle-school or older children.

Curtis’ steady hand, apparent in My Week With Marilyn (2011), elevated that mediocre screenplay, as it does this one. The director’s talent is also obvious in the movie’s perfectly calibrated performances. Irish actor Domnhall Gleeson’s (Ex Machina) restraint in the lead role continually hints at the depth of Milne’s despair. His performance, along with an outstanding debut from nine-year-old Will Tilston as Christopher Robin, moor a rather tangled narrative. In schematic female roles, Margot Robbie adds great nuance to Daphne, the “bad mother,” as does Kelly Macdonald to Olive, the “good mother.”

Audiences new to the real-life story of the Milne family will learn that Daphne longed for a daughter, and having purchased girl’s clothing during her pregnancy, she kept Christopher in dresses as a child. While that is undoubtedly neurotic, Daphne, too, was traumatized by war and the prospect of losing her husband; in a scene shortly after Christopher’s birth, she voices the fear that her only son will also be called upon to fight another war. It was Daphne and not Alan who bought Christopher’s toys and who invented voices for them.

While Goodbye Christopher Robin unfolds from A. A. Milne’s perspective, it is Christopher Robin whose presence is more deeply felt in the film—despite the niggling fact that the boy is not aging as he would have in real life, Milne’s books having been published over three years. Wonderful child co-stars often steal scenes away from their adult counterparts in movies, but Curtis also followed his instinct as a director; he realized he could capitalize on Tilston’s performance to balance a biography about at best an equivocal paternal figure, and at worst a father who exploited his son’s boyhood to regain his writing career.

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