STARRING: Domnhall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly MacDonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther.
WRITTEN BY: Frank Cottrell-Boyce & Simon Vaughan
DIRECTED BY: Simon Curtis
Everybody who grew up as a child in the UK has probably read Winnie the Pooh, indeed as Goodbye Christopher Robin points out, the same is undoubtedly true for children in many places across the world, and no doubt has been so since the world’s most well-known book for children first debuted in 1926.
Over ninety years later, director Simon Curtis, alongside screenwriters Frank Cottrell-Boyce & Simon Vaughan, tell a story related to Pooh, its genesis, and the life of its creator A.A. Milne, which could well put a very different level of clarity on such a warm-hearted piece of children’s literature. In this autobiographical picture, we learn the surprisingly sad story of the boy, the titular Christopher Robin, who formed as inspiration for, and the basis of, Winnie the Pooh.
Surprising for the fact that Christopher, played here very well as a little boy by Will Tilston (and later as a young adult by Alex Lawther), was almost destroyed by the level of fame heaped upon him when Milne sold the stories to his publisher. Winnie immediately became a worldwide sensation, captivating the post-Great War youth of the mid-1920’s with its magical world, but in Milne’s drive to try and create a national treasure for a wounded, emotionally-barren England to enjoy, he and his wife Daphne (played by a somewhat miscast Margot Robbie) struggle to grasp how Christopher doesn’t want adulation for Pooh, he just wants his parents to love him and spend time with him. Once the realisation hits Milne, by default a rather solemn and haunted character, its almost too late.
Domnhall Gleeson essays Milne well as a man plagued by visions and the post-traumatic stresses of the First World War; every bang or crash, or even flashing light, is a reminder of the horrors of the Somme, from which he was lucky to escape with his life. An ominous pallor of war hangs over Curtis’ film, not to mention a strong pacifist, anti-war message as Milne desperately seeks to educate the English people about how war must never be repeated – even though the film early on reminds us of the Second World War and how a grown up Christopher will end up fighting it. National destiny wraps itself up around the psychological effects of long-term warfare and the questions posed after it – what was it all for? *Who* was it all for? The children is perhaps the answer Milne finds.
If Gleeson brings to Milne a nervous energy and stiff upper lip in the face of serious mental health problems, the usually dependable Robbie is the weak link. Daphne is already an unsympathetic character, caring more about living the 20’s high life and of appearances than she truly does about her family, but Robbie is stifled by a cut glass, almost cliched British accent which, try as she might, she is never able to quite escape from. She’s also thinly written, which doesn’t help. Kelly MacDonald gets a chewier role as ‘Mou’ aka Olive, the nanny employed to look after little ‘Billy Moon’ aka Christopher; the boy’s true mother (if not biologically), she faces the emotional conflict between doing right by a child thrust into a spotlight he can’t handle, and knowing her place.
In the end, Goodbye Christopher Robin becomes about identity. Who are we? What’s our place in the world? All questions asked in the script, in which many of the main characters call each other by affectionate names at the expense of their real ones, and whereby celebrity and renown are conflated with the pages of a book, and the meaning within. Simon Curtis shoots the picture with an old English haze, many shots of sunlight glistening through meadows, and enjoys playing with colour as reflected in the characters and their changing seasonal moods.
Even if the picture lacks the writing or narrative thrust to be a great biography, forced to move swiftly through a substantial time period, Goodbye Christopher Robin nonetheless has an emotional truth skilfully brought out by many of its main players, and is unafraid to darken its pallet with weighty moral and philosophical themes. You may never quite look at Pooh and his friends in the same way.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is now on general release. Let us know what you thought of it…