Goodbye Christopher Robin
Literary biopic explores bonds and barriers between fathers and sons
Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)
Cast: Domnhall Gleeson, Will Tilston, Margot Robbie
Alongside such familiar touchstones as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Nilla Wafers and Candyland, A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books remain an unsullied memory of childhood for generations of people—a pure, gentle and near-ubiquitous reminder of that perfectly uncomplicated period before puberty took us. Given the state of what the world is, was and always will be, now is as good a time as any to set our minds back to who we were before we became who we are—to recall the wisdom, imagination and youthful enthusiasm of childhood.
With Goodbye Christopher Robin, longtime British television producer/director Simon Curtis pages back to the origins of Milne’s family classics, starting with Winnie-The-Pooh in 1926. When we meet our soon-to-be author (played here by handsome beanpole Domhnall Gleeson of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), he is a young playwright, freshly returned from the battlefields of The Great War. Alan Milne, known to friends and family as “Blue,” is quietly and stoically suffering from what we, today, would call post traumatic stress disorder. He has flashbacks of the fly-blotted trenches and his trademark wit has curdled into something more cynical. Unable to deal with the crowded city of London anymore, he flees with his beautiful wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), to the fields and forests of Sussex. There, Daphne gives birth to their only child, the cherub-cheeked Christopher Robin—known to his nickname-prone family as “Billy Moon.”
Still missing the excitement of London, Daphne doesn’t exactly warm to motherhood. And Mr. Milne is far too absorbed in producing what he considers his “great work”—a treatise condemning the madness of war—to be much of a father. The duty of raising young C.R. Milne falls to warmhearted and fiercely dedicated nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald from Trainspotting and “Boardwalk Empire”). Annoyed with Milne’s persistent writer’s block and chafing at her provincial life, Daphne ditches the family and heads off to London. An illness in her family forces Olive to leave temporarily as well, stranding Mr. Milne and his 6-year-old son to fend for themselves. The two bond quickly, however, going for long walks, playing Robin Hood in the woods and hosting dinner parties with Billy Moon’s beloved stuffed animals. Milne finds in his son a clever, imaginative companion. Before long the author is spinning elaborate fairy tales involving his son’s teddy bear and the pastoral woods in which they live. The scenes of Milne interacting with his young offspring (revelatory newcomer Will Tilston) are beautiful and magical—a touching idyll about fathers, sons and the connective power of imagination.
Suddenly inspired, Milne decides to turn the casual bedtime stories into a collection of prose and poetry. The resultant books, concerning the adventures of a young boy named Christopher Robin and his stuffed companion Winnie-the-Pooh, become massive bestsellers. Still weary from the horrors that The Great War visited upon Europe, the world greets the easygoing fantasy of Winnie-the-Pooh with something bordering on manic devotion.
Sadly—as all stories must contain some element of sadness—the massive popularity of Milne’s books soon proves to be a burden on the family. Young Billy Moon bears the brunt of that burden. First of all, because his already estranged parents are now wealthy jet-setters, winging off to America and beyond for massive book signings and publicity tours. And second of all, because “Christopher Robin” (as he prefers not to be known) is the real-life star of the most popular children’s book series on the planet. Constantly besieged for interviews and photographs and buried under a mountain of fan mail, the lonely lad has no idea how to handle life as the world’s first media sensation.
Given that the struggles of writers are almost all internal, most stories about writers are deadly dull affairs. But Goodbye Christopher Robin is more about the wonderfully alchemical process of inspiration and creation—and the often toxic aftereffects of fame. The film’s happiness is positively infectious and its tragedy is deeply heartfelt. It’s rare to find a work of art that makes you cry from both happiness and sadness. Some may find the script by Frank Cottrell Boyce (writer of 24 Hour Party People and Millions) and Simon Vaughan (producer of “Ripper Street” and “Parade’s End”) tries to cover too much ground—particularly as its third act slides into the young adulthood of Christopher Robin and the realization that his childhood was basically packaged and sold by his father. But the film tends to its story with speed and economy, and it’s hard to argue with the perfect bookend that the film’s father-and-son coda offers up.
There are a handful of elements along the way that get short shrift. Mrs. Milne, for example, lacks the psychological depths afforded her family members, rarely coming across as anything more than selfish and one-note. But when it’s concentrating on the fanciful wonder and worldly confusion of father and son and the tenuous interconnectedness between them, this is a tenderhearted winner. Goodbye Christopher Robin emerges on screen as a wonder-filled, emotion-packed reminder of the joys of childhood and the attendant pains of growing up.