Simon Curtis plays it safe with this A.A. Milne biopic
From the title onwards, Goodbye Christopher Robin is an adamantly bleak take on the creation of Christopher Robin and his friend Winnie-the-Pooh. It falls into the category of films that could have been memorable but didn’t quite make it. In terms of acting, structure and content, it constantly comes across as unrealistic and often quite twee.
Similar to this biopic is Chris Noonan’s equally quaint Miss Potter (2006) which explores the origins of the classic British children’s tales of Peter Rabbit, although Miss Potter had a slightly more upbeat tone and focused much more on the publishing of her stories and illustrations, as Beatrix Potter was not an established playwright and novelist like A.A. Milne was.
The film sets out to cover two main storylines, both deeply rooted emotional traumas that get unrealistically resolved – A.A. Milne’s suffering from PTSD, alongside the negligence of his son and the fame that was pushed upon Christopher Robin as a child.
“Isn’t it funny/How a bear likes honey/Buzz! Buzz! Buzz!/I wonder why he does.” from Winnie the Pooh’s first chapter does not ring as pleasant after watching a shell-shocked A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) react to the buzzing of bees on a walk with his son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston). This particular narrative was dealt with somewhat clumsily, as Gleeson embodies a British WW1 soldier very convincingly, but quite soon in the story overcomes his PTSD by jumping on balloons which mimic the sound of bullets.
The parents are unequivocally self-absorbed, although it is his wife Daphne — a very glamorous and business orientated Margot Robbie — who is clearly made to be the most unlikeable of the two. She appears cold and unattached from her child, though this could be due the amount of mental and physical effort of keeping up an incredibly hard upper-lip English accent, and makes her entire role uncomfortably one-dimensional.
A full sequence is dedicated to watching the pair from the viewpoint of Christopher Robin’s window, as his nanny Nou — Kelly MacDonald, who possessed by far the best acting skills in the film — wave them goodbye each night as they swan off to various social events. This feeds into the period and what was commonplace amongst wealthy parents in London during the 1920s. To bring up one’s infant child without a nanny was simply unheard of and would be an automatic signifier of financial struggles.
Initially, it is from constant triggers to his PTSD that drives Milne from dazzling Chelsea to rural Cotchford Farm, to which Daphne shows little enthusiasm, to say the least. Once they are all settled — including Nou, how else could they possibly handle their lives — Milne experiences severe writer’s block.
Daphne shadily observes the Father and son bonding, which translates to wasted time in her eyes. “You’re a writer. Write!” she demands Milne, finally storming off back to London to look at the new wallpaper collection at Whiteley’s and announces she will only come back if he writes something. In other words, she throws a tantrum.
Nou leaves to tend to her sick mother, which puts Blue (A.A. Milne’s nickname) in the initially uncomfortable situation of being alone with Christopher Robin, or Billy Moon as he preferred to be called.
Idyllic days of walks in the infamous Hundred Acre Wood, games of cricket and the acting out of imaginary adventures go by, which of course include Billy’s marvellous collection of toys. Winnie the Bear (the Pooh came later as a sufficiently “inexplicable” name – one of the few interesting things we learn from the film), Tigger, Eyore and Piglet are all brought along by Billy. This is when the idea is born, and fellow WW1 veteran E.H. Shepard (The History Boys’ Stephen Campbell Moore) is called in to capture the moments that will illustrate the first poem – “Vespers”.
Sent off to Daphne, she gleefully comes back. When asked very calmly) about where she has been, she dismisses the question with an exasperated “What does it matter? I’m here now” and her departure is forgotten.
The internationally adored bear became a franchise at the expense of Billy Moon’s childhood. Roped into publicity stunts, interviews, and photo sessions, little Billy grows to be very confused as to why people think he is Christopher Robin. Introduced to the manager of a toy shop that sells hundreds of replicas of Winnie-the-Pooh, he asks what a manager does. “He makes all the decisions” which prompts him to ask his mother “Are you, my manager, then?” and ends up being one of the better-played scenes of the film.
His parents proceed to what is really yet another act of selfishness and send him off to boarding school. Due to his “fame” and effeminate haircut, he is constantly tormented by the other schoolboys, and by the time he reaches adolescence, craves anonymity so much he wants to enlist even though he failed the medical test. In a strange ending, where the father-son hatred magically dissipates, I was left with slight disbelief, and could not escape the feeling that the film did not
In a strange ending, where the father-son hatred magically dissipates, I was left with slight disbelief, and could not escape the feeling that the film did not fulfil the potential its premise certainly had.