Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Will Tilston
Director: Simon Curtis
Running Time: 107 mins
Synopsis: Based on the true story surrounding the creation of the most beloved of children’s stories, Winnie The Pooh. A.A Milne (Gleeson) returns from the battlefields of WW1 a changed man. Tormented by PTSD he takes his wife Daphne (Robbie) and young son Christopher (Tilston) to live in the countryside. There he is inspired by his son’s play toys to conjure up the tales of Pooh. Instant success follows but it challenges the bond between father and son.
It is a long held understanding that in order to create art, whether that be film, literature, music and copious others, that you must give something of yourself over to it each time. This could be nothing more than your own personal character traits, an experience or feeling you may have had, and in some larger cases situations from your long held memory. Goodbye Christopher Robin asks the question, what becomes of you when your entire life, in fact even your name, becomes fodder for the masses to consume? In turn allowing this genteel softly lit drama to reach into deeper darker truths about the nature of art, commerce and childhood.
Few may realise that the heart of one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time (as a helpful end credit caption informs us) Winnie-the-Pooh, the boy hero Christopher Robin was in actual fact a real child, the son of author AA Milne. Before we see the young charge though the film attempts to drill us into the mind of the writer himself. Returning from the battlefields of WW1 tormented and damaged by the images he has seen and the men he has lost, but forced to deal with interminable parties due to his success as a playwright. Director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) captures this PTSD effectively, utilising bold and simple cutaways, sound effects and the strength of Domhnall Gleeson’s performance to showcase just how wounded he has become. Sensing that he may never get any work done or in fact any real peace in the middle of noisy London, Milne opts to uproot and head to the wilds of Sussex, with Margot Robbie’s Daphne and newborn son Billie Moon (a nickname they have for Christopher) in tow.
Wisely Curtis is truthful in showing just how bad at parenting the husband and wife Milne were. Not through any real malice but his own crippling fears and creative focus, coupled with her self-obsession mean young ‘Billie’ spends the predominant amount of time with his nanny Olive. Wrapping him and the audience up within a warm loving hug is Kelly MacDonald, whom graces Olive with fierce independence, formidable affection and heartbreaking soul. Alas the same cannot be said for Margot Robbie. She certainly tries, her accent is pretty solid, but the character is painfully one-note. Selfish, viciously cutting and quite frankly a bit of a bitch. This would be all well and good but the film never takes the time to dive into why she is like that. Opting instead to send her away for half the film, when she decides the country life isn’t for her. The fact AA welcomes her back so willingly later on is kept frustratingly distant from the audience as to why!
Fortunately Goodbye Christopher Robin gets its key component spot on, the relationship between father and son. After Daphne leaves him, and Olive gets called away, AA is forced to spend alone time with his fast growing son. In what is the films’ strongest segment we see them gradually forming a tight bond. Playing in the woods together, conjuring stories about Christopher’s many stuffed toys and gently, believably connecting. If it is all perhaps a little Sunday-TV at some points with its light tone, unfussy shots of the beautiful landscape and posh accented dialogue, Curtis at least finds the inner earnestness of his two performers. Gleeson conveying AA’s hesitations and fears as a father with stoic emotional grace. Will Tilston is the real revelation here though. Managing to act from underneath a terrible haircut, with truthfulness and a witty intelligence. It is a performance beyond his young years. Christopher feels like a real child, with all the brazen selfishness, stubborn stroppiness and barely contained emotional anguish you’d expect. That all comes from Tilston’s naturalistic charming performance.
Soon enough Milne uses these blessed moments of fatherly playtime as inspiration for a certain honey-loving bear. Before he knows it, his stories become a pop culture phenomenon, thrusting Christopher into the spotlight. This is when the film becomes an almost troubling exploration of the pitfalls of fame, creative expression and personal liberty. The Milne’s doing very little to protect the young man from the swarming fans and gutter press. Curtis cleverly never overplays this, focusing on just a couple of scenes of overwhelming public appearances and brutally cold experiences with his father treating him like the character in his books rather than as his own son. Tilston plays this confusion and pain well, with the ultimate realisation of what AA is doing to his boy devastating to the now championed author.
A final act lurch into events set years later is cleverly edited if a little jarring after the quietly driven pace of the preceding two acts. Christopher evolving from wide eyed Tilston to a broken lonely Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game). A decision he makes and a train station encounter with his father are heartbreaking to watch, enriching in its subtly complex depiction of childhood sorrow. What AA does to his son is unforgivable and a sly evisceration of the cost one must endure for creating art. It is certainly an unexpected dimension to a film that too often rides close to the line of being twee, but one that marks this out as something different to those other ‘writing a classic’ biopics like Finding Neverland. A testament to how even something as simple as a children’s bedtime story can have its roots in pain, love and the tangible bond between a father and son.
Verdict: A warm, delightful hug of a film, saved from being too winsome by a darkly complex look at the commercialisation of childhood and a phenomenal performance by Will Tilston.