Goodbye Christopher Robin
(UK, 107 min.)
Dir. Simon Curtis, Writ. Frank Cottrell Boyce, Simon Vaughan
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston
|Domhnall Gleeson and Will Tilston star in Goodbye Christopher Robin|
Photo by David Appleby / Fox Searchlight Pictures
Do you remember Winnie-the-Pooh? That little golden bear who lived in the Hundred Acre Woods with Piglet and Eeyore? That cuddly teddy who was friends with Christopher Robin and, in turn, a friend to all of us who cherished his adventures during story time?
But really, did any of us ever forget Pooh Bear?
Storytelling proves deeply cathartic for Milne when he returns from the Great War. Shell-shocked with PTSD, he jumps at ever pop, hiss, and creak. His career as a playwright flounders since he gets stage fright introducing his comedies and wants to try dark anti-war work that doesn’t meet the appetite of Londoners who want to get on with their once-merry lives. In an effort to recover, Milne moves with his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya) to East Sussex where he escapes in nature and does everything but work.
A new chapter starts when Daphne gives birth to Christopher Robin, whom the parents quickly call “Billy Moon.” Billy’s life is a fiction long before his dad turns it into a fable. He wears stylishly effeminate clothes that his mum doesn’t bother to exchange, and his notably androgynous haircut helps Daphne have the daughter she wanted while her husband struggles with his writing. The identity crisis of Christopher Robin and Billy Moon becomes an underlying conflict for the boy’s life.
Daphne does a good deed, though, when she gifts Christopher/Billy a bunch of plush animals. A golden bear, a little pig, a donkey, and some singsong voices redeem Daphne early in the film as she struggles with her own identity crisis. A true socialite—and Robbie rocks the flapper gear pretty well—she isn’t the mothering type. These toys ignite the power of imagination in Christopher Robin, and the bear, which he eventually names Winnie after the fabled Winnipeg bear that he sees at the London Zoo with his mum and his nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald, No Country for Old Men), unlocks his childish sense of wonder.
But like the bear, Daphne doesn’t living in a cage. She flees to the city and leaves Olive to raise the child, and Christopher/Billy flourishes under his nanny’s guidance and stable presence. When Olive must look after her own family, the task falls upon Milne to wake up to his responsibilities.
Father and son bond over jaunts through the forest. Milne retreats to a state of boyhood to taste the sense of innocence of pre-war England. His adventures with Christopher in the Hundred Acre Woods inspire images of a young boy in better times. He writes stories that make people happy again as Winnie-the-Pooh comes to life and dips his hand into the honey jar—a pleasure the boys of Britain long ago forgot.
The sense of innocence is key to Goodbye Christopher Robin since the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh passes the golden glow from son to father. Milne’s gain is Christopher’s loss. Giving the magic of Pooh to the world robs Christopher of his childhood. If he’s not Billy Moon and if Christopher Robin is a character, then who is he? The film becomes bittersweet as one recognizes how one enjoyed Winnie-the-Pooh at Christopher’s expense. It might be a film about a small boy, but if there’s ever a parable on the value of life rights, consent, and the responsibility of an author to his or her subject in storytelling, this is it.
Director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) gets a remarkable performance out of the young Tilston. It is no easy task for a young actor to embody childlike innocence so purely without being cutesy or twee, and the director handles Christopher Robin’s impression of a storybook hero rather well without tasking the boy to do the dramatic heavy lifting. The performances by Gleeson and Robbie are strong with the former playing into Milne’s trauma and withdrawal to let the character rejuvenate in the latter act, while Robbie juggles the tricky task of being a fussy, prickly, flighty mother while letting the audience appreciate Daphne’s joie de vivre and hunger for a different life.
Macdonald is the heart of the film, though, as Olive. Playing Christopher’s nanny, or as he affectionately calls her, “Nu,” Macdonald conducts the emotions of the film as the lone character who grasps that childhood and innocence must end. Her rapport with Tilston is often stronger than the boy’s chemistry with Gleeson or Robbie simply by the nature of the intimacy between Olive and Christopher versus the cold relationship with the boy and his parents. She’s the Kanga to his Roo, and when one sees that relationship between the two, it makes the memory of Winnie-the-Pooh even sweeter. "Some people care too much," wrote Milne in Pooh's adventures. "I think it's called love."
Goodbye Christopher Robin opens Oct. 13.