Goodbye Christopher Robin – movie review

by James Robins / 07 December, 2017
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The sad story of the boy who inspired his father’s Pooh books.

Like so many writers of his generation, AA Milne returned from World War I with a broken mind. The crack of a champagne cork, the flash of a stage spotlight or the buzzing of flies all trigger shocks. Memories of the muddy, blood-spattered Somme come back in a rush.

It was all a “jolly little farce”, he sneers to a ballroom of stuffed shirts early on in Goodbye Christopher Robin, a biopic about Milne and his son.

Decamping to the Sussex countryside, Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) yearned to write an anti-war book. Eventually, he wrote Peace with Honour, but not before creating one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time: Winnie-the-Pooh.

Imagining these charming little fables became a kind of therapy as he learnt to bond with son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston, with one of the chubbiest cherubic faces I’ve ever seen), who is mostly left in the care of nanny Olive (the reliable Kelly Macdonald) while mother Daphne (Margot Robbie) is off being a socialite.

Here, Milne goes from nervously carrying the crying newborn, arms outstretched as if his son is a warm oven tray, to grasping his hand on a jaunt through the enchanted forest, which will soon provide inspiration.

All the familiar beats are present: the circular tracks in the snow, Owl in his oaky hideaway, the too-hot bath, Poohsticks on the river, Winnie trailing Christopher down a golden country path.

They are sweet and unassuming moments, and the film generally resists pouring too much “hunny” down our gullets, preferring stiff-upper-lip English stoicism. Even the expected swell of the traditional weepy finale is restrained.

There is, of course, no real soppy ending to this story. The fame that followed the books trailed Christopher for the rest of his life and forced him from the Hundred Acre Wood into the public eye.

Robbed of his childhood, he suffered bouts of heavy bullying at public˛school. So when the next war came, he disappeared into the anonymity of the army.

All this gives Goodbye Christopher Robin a slight tinge of tragedy and regret, which makes Macdonald’s nanny role all the more touching. She tried to give Christopher a regular childhood and protect him from the ravages of a commodified life, but was scorned and derided for it. She is the true centre and heart of the film, caught between adult trauma and wistful innocence.

Video: Fox Searchlight

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

This article was first published in the December 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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