For C. R. Milne, the real-life boy behind a beloved kids’ book character, the popularity of his father’s stories was a curse. Screenwriters Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan draw upon his memoirs for Goodbye Christopher Robin, and though director Simon Curtis applies a heavy hand, he mostly avoids preciousness in the child’s-eye perspective, if not the reverse-engineered quality that infects many biopics. It’s the chemistry between Domhnall Gleeson and newcomer Will Tilston, as the awkwardly matched father and son, that makes the movie more than a melange of inept parenting and Tigger, too.
It’s also a story of the trauma of combat. Domhnall’s celebrated playwright A. A. Milne is a shell-shocked veteran of World War I’s trenches. Back in London society, his fervent antiwar pronouncements make him a buzzkill at soirees. When a popped champagne cork or opening-night spotlight triggers flashbacks, he does his best to maintain a stiff upper lip. But the illustrator E. H. Shepard (well played by Stephen Campbell Moore), a fellow vet and Punch contributor who would become Milne’s collaborator on the Winnie-the-Pooh books, notices his friend’s jangled nerves and quietly does what he can to calm him.
A compelling, if not always subtle, child’s-eye-view of literary history.
Not so Milne’s wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), who insists that “if you don’t think about dreadful things, they cease to exist.” As the movie’s villain of sorts, the excellent Robbie is cheerfully tactless, a party girl who’s married as much to Milne’s ambition and stature as she is to the man. Her stylish dresses, designed by Odile Dicks-Mireaux, reflect not just the creme de la creme of 1920s chic but Daphne’s need to be part of it. Although bored by her husband’s determination to take a break from West End comedies and do something serious, she nonetheless agrees to move to the country with him and their son (Tilston), officially named Christopher Robin but known by his nickname, Billy Moon. Daphne sticks it out in England’s southeast until she can no longer abide Milne’s lack of productivity or resist the siren call of the capital.
By then the boy’s nanny, Olive, aka Nou and played with welcome grit and warmth by Kelly Macdonald, has already established herself as the only grounded, emotionally equipped adult in his life. (Her primacy is underscored in the way her Scottish vowels can be heard in Alex Lawther’s portrayal of the young adult Billy.)
When the flummoxed Milne is left on his own with Billy, the heart of the film unwinds over a quarter-hour of bonding that’s both charged and charmed; the first breakfast between father and son unfolds as a priceless bit of negotiation. They become storytelling partners and, with help from the artist Shepard, build an imagined world around the boy’s teddy bear and his other stuffed animals — namely, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Kango and Roo. Working in some of the actual East Sussex locations where the Milnes found inspiration, Curtis and cinematographer Ben Smithard punctuate the story with such effective touches of magic realism as an imaginary snowfall and storybook beams of light through the trees of Ashdown Forest.
But it’s their attention to the ways that the dimply Billy is as watchful and wary as he is hungry for paternal affection that makes the father-son exchanges compelling. Though he’s not immune to outbursts of childish jealousy when Nou finds a suitor (Shaun Dingwall), Billy is an old soul with a knack for empathy, skillfully talking his war-damaged father out of his occasional panic attacks.
Despite distracting aging makeup and overemphatic directing choices, Ex Machina star Gleeson convincingly embodies someone who can express himself on the page but is not always at home in his skin. From his self-reproachful clumsiness at a formal dance — and a rare redemptive moment for Daphne — to the trepidatious way he carries his infant son, Gleeson’s Milne finally becomes a kind of director, guiding Shepard in visual cues for their joint venture as they turn backyard stories into a publishing sensation.
How something so intimate became something that belonged to the world, and how Billy became called upon to play a role he despised — “the real Christopher Robin” — is the subject of the movie’s pointedly oversimplified second half. Macdonald’s fierce and wise nanny does what she can to protect Billy from prying reporters, but soon he’s a celebrity with a full appointment schedule. And while the fan letters by the bushel thrill the perhaps scapegoated Daphne, the film treats Milne as an ambivalent, borderline-clueless participant in this new level of fame, a man who comes to feel almost as entrapped by the success of his children’s books as does his son.
In a striking convergence with mother!, a movie that features Gleeson but which could not otherwise be more different from Curtis’ family-friendly outing, Goodbye Christopher Robin gazes in horror at artistic achievement as a bedeviling plague of hungry, albeit enriching, fans. Turning the utterly accessible, mainstream-oriented books into a thriving enterprise, those fans clamor insensitively and say all the wrong things, gauche monsters that they are.
Curtis, whose feature credits include the lamentable Woman in Gold and the considerably more involving My Week With Marilyn, tends to bring the story’s every undercurrent to the surface. So does the screenplay, beginning with the movie’s opening salvo, which needlessly resorts to the default tactic of starting at a crucial point late in the story and then flashing backward to tell the tale. But whether the onscreen action is obvious or subtle, Carter Burwell’s elegant score is understatement personified.
It complements the point of view that defines the film — that of Billy Moon. Like many astute kids, he sees his parents’ vulnerabilities and understands more than he can articulate. It takes years of suffering before Lawther’s older, deeply disgruntled version of the character gets to unburden himself. His vehemence is jarring but understandable; where the movie truly stumbles is in its cozily cathartic wrap-up, sorting out unresolved guilt and blame in such picture-perfect fashion that Christopher Robin Milne and his famous father would likely cringe.
Production companies: DJ Films, GasWorks Media
Distributor: 20th Century Fox/Fox Searchlight
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Vicki Pepperdine, Richard McCabe, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Shaun Dingwall
Director: Simon Curtis
Screenwriters: Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Simon Vaughan
Producers: Damian Jones, Steve Christian
Executive producers: Simon Curtis, Simon Vaughan
Director of photography: Ben Smithard
Production designer: David Roger
Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Editor: Victoria Boydell
Composer: Carter Burwell
Casting director: Alex Johnson
Rated PG, 107 minutes