A.A. Milne, Domhnall Gleeson, Drama, Kelly Macdonald, Margot Robbie, Review, Simon Curtis, True story, Winnie the Pooh, Writing
D: Simon Curtis / 107m
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard McCabe, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge
After fighting in the First World War, the playwright A.A. Milne (Gleeson) has difficulty adjusting to post-War life in the same way that his contemporaries have. While they behave as if the war had never happened, Milne suffers from delayed shell shock and debilitating flashbacks of his time at the Somme. Unable to reconcile his recent past with the demands of the present, Milne struggles to resume his writing; even the arrival of his first child, Christopher, is unable to make a difference. With a nanny, Olive (Macdonald), to look after Christopher (but called Billy), Milne moves his family to a secluded house in the Sussex countryside. When circumstances collude to leave Milne and Billy (Tilston) by themselves, their time together leads to Milne writing a series of books based around Billy’s toys, books whose main character is Christopher/Billy himself. But their success comes at a price, and Milne and his wife, Daphne (Robbie), allow Billy to become a part of the media circus that springs up around them, a decision that will have unexpected consequences when World War II brings things full circle…
From the outset, Goodbye Christopher Robin has all the hallmarks of a classic British heritage picture. With its impeccable period production design (courtesy of David Roger), sharply detailed costumes, attention to the social and political mores of the time, beautifully composed and lit cinematography (from Ben Smithard), and a surfeit of stiff upper lips, the movie has nostalgia running through it like a plumb line. This is a movie that looks and feels as if you could step into it at any moment and join A.A. Milne and his young son on their walks throught the Hundred Acre Wood. Luckily though, the script – by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan – isn’t content with just recreating a bucolic time gone by. Instead it wants to paint a darker picture, one that encompasses PTSD, the expoitation of childhood innocence, remote parenting, the pitfalls of fame, and emotional disconnection. But while these issues serve to make the movie less superficial than it might be otherwise, even when they’re combined they don’t quite provide enough depth to stop the movie from feeling like a carefully selected box of confectionery. Make no mistake, it’s a lovely selection, but after a while you begin to realise that all the centres have the same flavour.
That’s not to say that the movie is a bad one, or that it fails somehow in its ambitions. Rather it’s a case of a movie doing exactly what is expected of it and very little more. There are the requisite number of moments where a loud noise sends Milne back to the trenches, the long-delayed moment when Olive tells her employers what she thinks of their parenting skills, and several more moments when Billy brings Milne out of his moody, self-imposed shell just by being a smiling young moppet. It’s attractively put together by director Simon Curtis, who shows more engagement with the subject matter than he did with his last feature, Woman in Gold (2015), and he coaxes a terrific performance from first-timer Tilston. Gleeson glowers in silence a lot but is effective as Milne, Macdonald shines in the kind of servant role she can do in her sleep now, Moore contributes a sensitive turn as Winnie the Pooh’s original illustrator, E.H. Shepard, but Robbie’s turn as Daphne is spoilt by the character’s unrelentingly mean-spirited and mercenary nature; the actress has nowhere to go with it. All in all though, the movie is an enjoyable one, with a strong emotional core to it, and a good sense of the childhood wonder that helped create such enduring and much-loved characters as Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and Piglet.
Rating: 7/10 – beautifully shot and edited, and with keenly expressed moments of insight into the creative process, Goodbye Christopher Robin nevertheless struggles to keep its dramatic elements meaningful or to the fore; thankfully it gets by on much else besides, including a magical vibe that’s maintained throughout, and the committed performances of its cast.