My Take – Growing up in the 90s, a time when Disney Animation was all over the place, as a kid I instantly found myself connected to every other character they introduced on the big and small screen, however, for some reason I never found myself rooting for Pooh, Tigger, Piglet and the rest of the characters of the children’s story, Winnie the Pooh, even though I admired how these stories epitomized a child’s innocence, something which I understood quite later in age. Despite Winnie-the-Pooh still being as considered one of the most beloved children’s book character of all time, somehow far less is known about his creator, the British playwright and author A.A. Milne. At first excited by the casting, followed by a disappointing trailer, I expected this biopic to be a tedious forgettable period piece, thankfully that was the not the case, as unlike most biopics, the film was made with a great sensitivity that mixed nostalgia for the most popular children’s book ever along with the harshness of two world wars, a domestic trouble and a coming-of-age tale. For someone who has created some of the most charming characters in children’s literature, author Milne’s life was not what one would expect while reading this stories, as he led quite a dark and troubled personal life, where innocence and charm had very little space for a very less time. The story follows Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), a play writer by profession, who upon returning from the battlefields of WWI, is still wrestling with the psychological horrors of war, what was then called shell shock and now known as post-traumatic stress. Now concerned with writing something against violence and war, instead of the comedic stories and plays he gained fame and fortune for, Milne decides to move with his wife and son from the social life of London to the Sussex countryside in hopes of finding the peace and quiet in order to indulge himself.
But the rural solitude and silence leave him blocked as a writer, with little sense how to express his feelings, he keeps growing frustrated, mainly as his socialite wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), is mostly disinterested in the duties of being a wife and a mother, as their young son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), given the nickname Billy Moon, is left in the care of his sweet-natured nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald). However due to certain situations, once Milne is left alone in charge of Billy, he stumbles upon a world of imagination where Billy’s toys are his friends. Recruiting his WWI comrade, Ernest (Stephen Campbell Moore) to add illustrations of the boy and his toy animals and begins discussing the best approach for a story that can lift Britain’s morale after the war. Upon publishing, Milne’s stories of childhood innocence strike a chord with the public, and their popularity only grows with time, leading the author to send Billy off on publicity tours requiring him to sit for countless radio interviews and making quite some public appearances. Perplexed by the unwanted scrutiny from strangers, private life become quite impossible for the Milne family, as every member begins suffering the burden of people’s expectations, but none so much as Billy as he advances into young adulthood (Alex Lawther), with a certain resentment towards his father, for forcing him into a public life he never wanted. Creating a character permanently engraved in our collective memories might seem like a writer’s dream come true, but for the Milne family, it came at a cost, as unlike Scrooge and Peter Pan, Christopher Robin Milne was a real person. This period film from director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) gives us a deeply personal look into the origins of the small young boy in the Hundred Acre Wood offers childish joys shadowed by tragedy, and if you’re expecting a lighter-than-air Pooh spin-off, the opening should get you to pack away your childish fantasies. However, this is a film primarily about family relationships as it blends the mental trauma Milne has been living with since his WW1 experience, and Christopher Robin’s own traumatic childhood, as he witnesses his parent’s fractious relationship and then lives with the deep unhappiness of having his life turned upside down when his father’s book, Winnie the Pooh, becomes an enormous and unexpected worldwide hit and inadvertently makes a celebrity of Christopher Robin. The film has a narrative structure that allows the story to move between genre strands and across several decades. The effect of these shifts is to tell the story from Christopher’s point of view both as a child and later as a young man after World War II. Through his childhood recollections, the adult Christopher shares his loneliness and deep resentment over the endless interviews and public adoration for the ‘boy with the bear from the 100 Acre Wood’. The story reveals that instead of little Christopher Robin being the luckiest boy in the world he was the saddest, and with such an icy path to be navigated through the film, we will be definitely be drawn to the film’s one pocket of enduring warmth: Billy’s relationship with the woman who all but raised him, his nanny Olive. When it comes to the writing, the film is very intelligently and thoughtfully written and, considering that it has a subject matter where it is so easy to go heavy-handed and be too much of one tone, has evidence of sensitivity and nuance with touches of bitter irony in how such a happy childhood depicted in the stories was very much a miserable one in real life.
The nods and references to Milne’s work are clever and affectionate, enough to make one’s eyes well up with aching nostalgia. The story is cohesive and never feels like it’s jumping around too much or lacking momentum, it also has a lot of heart and affecting poignancy in how Christopher tries to get his father to loosen up and the interaction with his nanny (along with Christopher the warmest and most sympathetic character here). The film certainly tugged at heartstrings, unfolding a somewhat cold narrative, sprinkled with its share of warm joyous moments of family banter and the creation of something we have all adored for the entirety of our lives. Although only rated PG, it was thematically mature in speaking to the audience as much as the characters spoke to themselves, as the film as a whole addresses several themes and it’s really a bit of a mishmash, plus it’s not just about the creation of the Winnie the Pooh books; it’s about the impact of war, the troubles with early 20th century parenting, tricky father-son relationships, the joy and innocence of childhood, and the pain and price of fame. It does play on the idea of “in the darkness comes the light,” to shine optimism on our main characters who have dealt with internal conflicts and the pains of the world wars, and to also let viewers leave not too distressed over what could have easily been told as a tale of tragedy. I think most of the right buttons were pressed for myself as I watched it, but I can’t say that this is totally a children’s film where they will be riveted with joy and delight. This all works as both a strength and a weakness of the film; in many ways it’s wonderful to have such a wealth of topics and the variety keeps things fresh and interesting. On the other hand, some themes aren’t fully explored to the extent they could be and it feels as though it’s missing something occasionally. It never really focuses on one theme and so does tend to meander around all these topics, telling a vague story; at times it seems to be more a series of scenes with just a semblance of story. Of course this is because the story itself is fairly simple, so it’s nice that they enriched the plot with so many themes; it just feels as though it could have benefited from a little more detail. On the technical side, the beautiful cinematography, with its vibrant hues, really brings the film to life in a way that reminds one of how a story book would. The settings and costumes are both sumptuous and vivid, making the viewer feel like they’ve been transported in time to that period and being part of it. Carter Burwell‘s string-heavy score is luscious and stirring in its elegance. Both combined creates a really nostalgic quality that could have been at odds at the dark portrayal of Milne’s and his family’s personal life but it’s an effective contrast. Nevertheless the strong cast and a welcome streak of anti-sentimentality keep the film mostly compelling. Domhnall Gleeson is excellent here, as he portrays parts of Milne very well especially the PTSD. Margot Robbie is perfect as the emotionally vacuous parent for whom mothering was an embarrassing inconvenience. Kelly Macdonald is quite good here as she definitely has the most emotional scenes and her story with him is probably the best portrayed and fun to watch. Macdonald‘s Olive grounds the film as the friendliest, least complex adult character while Will Tilston exceeds all expectations you would have from a nine year old in their first ever acting role. With sheer innocence and childishness he emanates effortlessly from his big eyes and little movements. He really is the heart of the film and fortunately they make the most of him. Alex Lawther also does well as his grown up version. On the whole, ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ is a bittersweet yet hard-edged drama that on biographical terms fascinates and illuminates.
Directed – Simon Curtis
Rated – PG
Run Time – 107 minutes