Simon Curtis, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” (2017)
A film about English playwright / author A A Milne and the circumstances in which he was inspired to write the “Winnie the Pooh” series of books based on his son Christopher Robin and the child’s toys could have been a very tedious nostalgia-filled flick with more saccharine sickliness than substance and style. Parts of the film are too sugary and it does come out at a time when the British movie industry delves ever more into a mythical early 20th-century past for want of original stories. (Maybe if the British government put more money into tertiary education and encouraged more working-class and lower middle-class students to take up writing and scripting for films, there would be good original films with meaty stories and British actors would not need to compete with other non-American actors for work in Hollywood.) Surprisingly, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” turns out to be more substantial than it would at first appear, given its biopic subject matter: the film tackles quite a few disturbing themes – the impact of war and shellshock on a family and the relationships within that family; the disturbing treatment of children by their parents in upper class English families; the effect of sudden fame and celebrity on people ill-equipped to deal with being famous, and the resulting loss of childhood innocence replaced by pain that can last life-times – which leave viewers with much food for thought about whether Milne should or should not have mentioned his son in the books at all and whether the books would have achieved as much fame as they did if the son had indeed been left out.
The film is cleverly framed by two major wars that in their own way led to the decline of the British empire and British influence on a global scale. We meet Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), just returned from fighting from the Western front in the Great War, tormented by severe flash-back experiences that affect his social life and ability to write, even function normally. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) experiences her own trauma in giving birth to their son, whom they name Christopher Robin: Daphne had wanted a girl and was unprepared for the extreme pain of childbirth. Right from the outset Daphne rejects the baby, nicknamed “Billy”, and the couple hire Scottish nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to care for the child.
Determined to write a book decrying war but experiencing writer’s block and continual flash-back episodes, Milne takes his family down to a country house in southern England which becomes their primary residence. When Billy reaches primary school age, Daphne flees back to London to catch up with the social set and Olive must return to her sick mother: this leaves Milne and Billy alone together and father and son start to forge a friendship. This has the effect of inspiring Milne to write and publish a series of poems and stories based on Billy and his toys, with illustrations provided by Milne’s friend Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore). The poems and stories prove to be immensely popular in Britain and overseas, and suddenly the Milnes are inundated with fan mail, demands for interviews and public appearances, and intrusive press and fans. Billy is quicker than both his starry-eyed parents to realise that his life and toys are not his own anymore.
The scripting is smooth and very flowing, jumping across gaps in time to suggest Billy’s angst, pain and eventually anger as he is thrown into boarding school at a tender age where he faces constant bullying from other kids for his fame in a children’s story series and comes to believe that his father exploited him. Will Tilston gives a good performance as the child Billy in conveying a full range of emotions and feelings about fame and the pressures it places on him. Alex Lawther takes up the baton as the teenage Billy, eager to serve as a private in the British Army so he can forge his own identity, and makes the most of his limited role. Gleeson plays a traumatised, emotionally restricted and (at times) conflicted Milne very well. Macdonald provides the warm-hearted balance to the dysfunctional parenting of Milne, often at sea in the events swirling around him, and his shallow, hedonistic and ultimately mercenary wife Daphne.
Perhaps the best part of the film is its beautiful cinematography which captures the soft light and magic of the English countryside and of Ashdown Forest in particular where a child’s imagination can open up and perceive a fairy-tale world of snow and snowflakes that float upwards. The middle part of the film where Milne begins to create the world of Winnie the Pooh is perhaps the best and most beautiful and uplifting part.
For a film juggling a number of themes, inevitably some get short shrift and viewers never find out whether Milne was able to deal with his wartime experiences and shellshock. What Milne himself thought of the way in which his “Winnie the Pooh” creation overshadowed the rest of his writing career (including the anti-war book “Peace With Honour” that he did eventually write) and subtly implied that his other writing might be mediocre is also not known. Near the end (spoiler alert) of the film, a reconciliation between Milne and his son appears unnatural, mawkish and emotionally manipulative, as though despite all the unresolved problems the Milne family has – one notes all the way through that Daphne is extremely distant from her son and he has no time for her either – the film has to end on an upbeat note with all loose ends tidied and tied and all characters determined to forge ahead on one bright and shining path as one.
While the film might be inadequate in resolving its themes, at least it has been brave enough to approach and suggest them. The issue of war and the cost of keeping the peace is one that continues to bedevil human beings, as does also the issue of how much young children should be exposed to constant publicity before it threatens their right to privacy and sense of identity, and brings unexpected and painful consequences to them (such as stalking and bullying, as Billy was to discover). The Milne couple’s frightful parenting is part of another larger and more grave problem revolving around Britain’s class hierarchy and how its reliance on boarding schools for upper class and middle class children stunt their development and help reinforce mediocrity, incompetence, indifference and lack of compassion among its elites. That’s probably a subject for another film or a TV mini-series.