Goodbye Christopher Robin, the latest movie from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn), examines, of all things, the dark underbelly of that fluffiest of children’s lit characters, Winnie the Pooh. No one is likely to be surprised that author A.A. Milne’s inspiration for the classics When We Were Very Young and The House on Pooh Corner was his young son, Christopher Robin Milne, and in fact, that longstanding belief is part of the enduring charm of the Pooh stories.
So is it good news or bad that this isn’t a myth, that the truth is much darker than we probably wanted to know? Curtis’ movie is absolutely beautiful to watch, with honey-dipped, sun-dappled cinematography by Ben Smithard (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, My Week with Marilyn) and a lovely, toffee-sweet score by Carter Burwell. It all teases a heartwarming story of how Milne wrote his lovely children’s stories watching his son play with his now-famous stuffed animals, but the fact of the matter is this is a dark story about deeply troubled people, and it’s an open question whether anyone wanted to know that there was a dark underbelly to Pooh.
You can’t fault the acting. The adults are good, but are inevitably upstaged by young Will Tilston, who plays the young Christopher Robin with more dimension and less central casting cuteness than viewers might be expecting.
Milne, played with an unwavering stiff upper lip by British cinema’s fastest-rising go-to guy, Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Brooklyn, Ex Machina, Unbroken, About Time), was a product of the English private school system (which they call “public”) and was taught by H.G. Wells. He went to Trinity College on a mathematics scholarship. Though a lifelong pacifist, he served in World War I, and was actually a successful author and playwright before Winnie the Pooh ever saw the light of day.
He may actually not have liked kids all that much either, a detail these filmmakers would clearly rather not deal with. In any event, Gleeson plays the unrelentingly stiff and undemonstrative Milne with honesty and consistency, and avoids temptations to make him more likeable.
The screenplay, by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Welcome to Sarajevo) and Simon Vaughan, portrays Milne as suffering from PTSD and hangs a lot of his emotional difficulties on that. While the historical record does not explicitly support that interpretation, it makes sense in the context of the story. Initially, his marriage to glamorous socialite Daphne de Selincourt (Margot Robbie) seems to be just what the doctor ordered, but she’s no better prepared for parenthood than he is and their only child, Christopher Robin, is raised primarily by his nanny Olive, whom he called “Nou,” played with warmth and sensitivity by Kelly Macdonald. (Robbie, with certainly the most thankless role in the script, fearlessly rises to the occasion of playing a character the audience is simply not going to like.)
The script doesn’t live up to the talent of the cast, first relying over-heavily on the stale biopic convention of “A-ha” moments where the audience recognizes something as the inspiration for something. You mean Winnie the Pooh was based on a stuffed bear? Who knew? The script is also structured around a major plot device which appears to be fictional, and although it would be fair to discuss it, since it raises its head in a prologue, this critic will avoid spoiler accusations and just mention that if fictional, it’s also melodramatic and cheesy. (You get to avoid those criticisms if an event actually happened, but not if you made it up.)
Goodbye Christopher Robin is at its most entertaining during a comparatively brief episode when Milne is left to fend for himself and his son while Nou is away to tend her own sick mother, and Daphne is off being a glamorous socialite. He appears to actually enjoy his participation in Christopher Robin’s playtime, and audiences are likely to be drawn inevitably into the long litany of “A-ha” moments as key elements of the classic books begin to emerge. This is the movie much of the audience came to see, and it’s all too brief. The books Milne writes and publishes are huge hits, bolstered by the whimsical artwork of his old friend, Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) who did the real Christopher Robin no favors by drawing the character to look just like him.
But much more of the movie details, painfully, how the marketing of the Pooh properties took over the lives of the troubled Milne family, and in particular, Christopher Robin. These scenes, individually well-directed with well-written awkwardness, are sometimes actually squirmy to watch, and to those of us to whom that silly old bear was a fixture of childhood, perhaps more than we needed to know. Ultimately, the movie is about the pain behind the idyll and we might have been just as happy not knowing about the individual stains on the Milne family dirty laundry.