Director: Simon Curtis/2017
This weekend, the box office takes a return to Pooh Corner and the Hundred Acre woods in Simon Curtis’ Goodbye Christopher Robin, a sad and touching biopic about the real story behind everybody’s favorite willy, nilly, silly, old bear. With an all-star cast featuring Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Revenant) , Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, Suicide Squad), Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting, Brave), Alex Lawther (Imitation Game), and Stephen Campbell Moore (The Bank Job), the stories of Pooh will come alive but the inspiration for them may be different than what you expected. As was the focus of the book, the real focus of this film is Christopher Robin himself, played wonderfully by new actor Will Tilston.
Alan Milne (Gleeson) was a beloved author and playwright who fought in World War I, dubbed “the war to end all wars”. Upon returning to England to his beautiful wife Daphne (Robbie), he finds it difficult to go back to meaningless dinner parties and social soirees. England, like him, is broken, yet he finds it maddening that no one is willing to discuss it. He also is suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder where simply a spotlight on him at the theater as he introduces his play sends him into full panic, recalling the horrific experiences of war.
After Daphne gives birth to Christopher Robin, who they all call Billy Moon, they hire a nanny named Olive (Macdonald), who Christopher calls “Nou”. They eventually move to the country, where Winnie-the-Pooh and his adventures are birthed.
In addition to giving a small glimpse of the effects of PTSD and how it is felt by the family, we also see the complicated relationship Christopher had with his parents, growing up often isolated from them. Alan was often distant, desiring to be left alone in peace to think, as his creative well seemed dried up. Daphne, who never seemed to want to be a mother would vacillate between playful moments giving voices to the stuffed animals she gave Christopher, and that eventually became Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, and the gang, and cold detachment. She didn’t permit blubbering in her presence, and she likewise didn’t cry or show emotion in the presence of anyone else. She would even leave Alan alone for weeks when she felt he wasn’t writing like he should.
These absences from his mother, and from the nanny who had to tend to her mother who was ill, by chance put Christopher and his father together. While first it was obligation, their playing together began to both begin a healing process in Alan from PTSD, and it opened up his mind to be creative again.
The film captures wonderfully the sense of awe that exists in the mind of a child. Will Tilston embodies exactly the very nature of Christopher Robin as he is expressed in the pages. The real life Christopher is playful, curious, precocious, and loving. He also was fearful and wounded in his view of adults given the emotional distance of his parents. He refers to his father as “Blue”, a nickname he had for a famous play, and his mother as Daphne. Very rarely did he address them as mom and dad. He longed to connect with his father. He had asked his father once to write a book for him. Instead, he got a book about him, that ended up sharing his life with the entire world, instead of the special-ness that exists when something is shared by only those closest to you.
Winnie-the-Pooh, while being something that lifted the mood of the entire country, and of the world, following the first World War, became something of a curse for young Christopher as he goes off to boarding school and faces endless taunting. When World War II breaks out, he longs to run into the military to have his own identity, despite his father’s deep-seeded stance against war after coming back home from WWI.
Many who go see this film might worry that this film is really a tragedy and don’t want to see something that will taint the beloved memories of Winnie-the-Pooh and his adventures. While Goodbye Christopher Robin certainly deals with the tragedy of real life, it somehow preserves and enhances the beauty and innocence of a child like Christopher Robin, and the stories that have been shared with us.
The script from Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughn is strong with a few notable weaknesses. Mostly their treatment of Daphne’s character is a bit shallow and she is made to be a too convenient villain in her own family dynamic rather than a complicated woman. While Margot Robbie ably handles the duality of the role of a woman who is unable to deal with any emotions that aren’t seen as favorable or that are viewed as unsightly, while trying her best to love those around her, the character as it is written renders her with no point for her character to receive any empathy. Alan has more moments to elicit empathy from, but it is clear that the best stuff is reserved for Christopher Robin, and his nanny Olive.
The words of Alan Milne and the illustrations of E.H. Shepherd (Moore) come to life through the daily interactions of one child and his imagination. While children do eventually grow up and say goodbye to who they used to be, Goodbye Christopher Robin reminds us that even as war and other tragedies swirl around us, we can still be child-like in heart. May we never lose that.