Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Simon Curtis
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Will Tilston, Kelly Macdonald, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore.
Written in 1926, Winnie The Pooh has become one of the most beloved and enduring pieces of children’s literature. This heartfelt but somewhat stuffy biopic tells the backstory of how writer Alan Alexander (A A) Milne came to create these endearing characters.
Before the outbreak of WWI, Milne (played hereby Domhnall Gleeson, from Ex Machina, etc) was a playwright and writer for satirical magazine Punch. But he returned from the war suffering from a form of PTSD, or as it was known then “shell Shock”, and was haunted by nightmarish memories and startled by loud noises. Seeking peace and a quiet place to begin writing again, Milne moved to the countryside with his cold, selfish socialite wife Daphne (Margot Robbie, from The Wolf Of Wall Street, etc) and young son Christopher (newcomer Will Tilston). But when Daphne grew bored with the rustic life and Milne’s writer’s block, she moved back to London and her circle of friends.
Both Milne and Daphne were rather distant parents, and young Christopher was largely raised by Olive (Kelly Macdonald, from the cult classic Trainspotting, etc), the housekeeper and nurse. But when Olive had to look after her sick mother, Milne found he spent more time with Christopher. They would walk through the local woods and as he watched Christopher play with his collection of stuffed toys inspiration struck. Milne began to develop the stories following the exploits of Christopher Robin and the honey-loving Winnie the Pooh. But the success of the stories put increasing pressure on the young Christopher who was thrust into the media spotlight and a world of photo opportunities, interviews, public exposure, and lots of fan mail.
As he grew to realise that the bonding sessions with his father was actually research for the fictional Christopher Robin, the young boy grew to resent the fame that the books brought. When sent off to boarding school he was mercilessly bullied. At the outbreak of WWII, the teenaged Christopher (played by Alex Lawther, from The Imitation Game, X+Y, etc) enlisted in the army, with the help of his father, where he hoped to find anonymity. And as a footnote tells us, he has refused to take any money from the royalties earned by the books and merchandising.
Goodbye Christopher Robin has been directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn, etc), who maintains a measured pace throughout. The film has been written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (The Railway Man, etc) and Simon Vaughan, who ironically previously wrote the WWI themed television movie Winnie The Bear (2004), which told the story of a Canadian black bear that eventually found its way to become an exhibit at the London Zoo and was the inspiration behind the name of Milne’s creation. And one suspects that the pair have taken some liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes.
There is a darker tone to the film as it draws a strong contrast between the horrors of the war and the psychological damage it wrought on a generation of young men, and the innocence of childhood. This is also a portrait of the loss of childhood and the high price of fame and success. The film also highlights the cold nature of the family, and highlights many of Milne’s own shortcomings as a father. However, director Curtis manages to suffuse the material with a nostalgic quality. Carter Burwell’s score is melancholy and effectively contributes to the mood as well.
The period detail reeks of authenticity and the settings and historical details ring true. There is some great cinematography from Ben Smithard (who also shot Curtis’ My Week With Marilyn), and he captures the woods themselves with nice autumnal colours that brings a warmth to the material.
Performances are all excellent. Gleeson brings a detached quality to his performance as the psychologically damaged and withdrawn Milne, while Robbie is excellent and continues to impress with a good performance as the cold and unlikeable Daphne. Newcomer Tilston is superb with his cherubic dimpled cheeks and long hair and winning smile (he looks a little like Little Lord Fauntleroy), and he brings subtle nuances and a vulnerability to his wonderful performance that belies his lack of experience. And Macdonald brings compassion and warmth to her role as Olive, who is really the only sympathetic character here.
Goodbye Christopher Robin joins those other cinematic biopics of authors and the personal struggles behind their most famous their creations, such as Saving Mr Banks, which looked at author P L Travers and her struggles with Walt Disney over the adaptation of her famous character Mary Poppins; Shadowlands; Finding Neverland, which explored how J M Barrie found the inspiration to create Peter Pan; and the upcoming The Man Who Invented Christmas, which followed Charles Dickens and the inspiration behind his classic novel A Christmas Carol.
The film is overly sentimental and emotionally manipulative at times, but I also found it a little slow at times and my mind sometimes wandered.