Goodbye Christopher Robin review: a bittersweet history of Winnie the Pooh

This warmly observed film relates how shell shock and new fatherhood prompted A.A. Milne to write a book that brought joy to generations of readers but not to his own son.

Matthew Taylor

from our forthcoming November 2017 issue

Goodbye Christopher Robin (Simon Curtis, 2017)

Goodbye Christopher Robin (Simon Curtis, 2017)

Later in life, the illustrator and cartoonist E.H. Shepard was known to ruefully remark how Winnie the Pooh – the beloved ‘silly old bear’ that he and author A.A. Milne introduced to the world in the mid-1920s – had completely overshadowed his hitherto varied career. The theme of lives being forever defined by an unleashed and uncontrollable phenomenon is explored with considerable poignancy in Simon Curtis’s Goodbye Christopher Robin, which focuses on the uneasy relationship between Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and the young son who famously became part of his stories.

The film opens in medias res during the early days of WWII, with the middle-aged Milne receiving an ominous telegram at his Sussex country estate. From there, we flash back to the aftermath of another war, as Milne – traumatised by his battlefield experiences at the Somme – struggles to reintegrate into the London literary set that he and wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) are part of. The screenplay, by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan (the latter also worked on 2004’s A Bear Named Winnie, a TV film about the origins of Pooh’s name), doesn’t skimp on Milne’s debilitating shell shock, which first curtails a vaunted one-man show and later exacerbates his creative block. A retreat to the countryside offers its own challenges, the buzzing of bees in the surrounding ‘Hundred Acre’ wood whisking Milne back to the trenches and the sound of flies circling corpses. In Cottrell-Boyce and Vaughan’s retelling, it’s Christopher Robin (impressive newcomer Will Tilston) who helps his father overcome his demons, the forest eventually becoming the idyllic backdrop for Pooh and company’s adventures.

Goodbye Christopher Robin (Simon Curtis, 2017)

Goodbye Christopher Robin (Simon Curtis, 2017)

Christopher Robin’s parents affectionately call him ‘Billy Moon’, a nickname that becomes crucial to the boy’s sense of self after his real name provides unwanted fame. With Milne labouring to finish his pacifist treatise Peace with Honour, and Daphne often away in London, Christopher grows close to his childless nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald). This forthright Scot coaxes Milne out of his study, encouraging the writer to spend more time with his son. The warmly observed scenes that ensue see the genesis of Pooh’s world, Milne basing his famous characters on Christopher’s stuffed toys. A trip to London Zoo, meanwhile, provides a sighting of the brown bear, newly transferred from Winnipeg, that gives Milne’s creation its name. This period of intimacy between father and son begins to fracture, however, when the resulting books turn Christopher into a global celebrity. Though Milne and the similarly war-damaged Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) see their work as a return to innocence, it inadvertently leads to Christopher losing his own.

Gleeson is fine as the terse, tetchy and ultimately guilt-stricken Milne, though Robbie seems miscast in the trickier, often unsympathetic role of Daphne. The standout performance belongs to Macdonald, who brings genuine emotional potency to her scenes as the all-seeing Olive. In one piercing moment, she castigates the Milnes for neglecting their child, offering that “a cow can give birth” in response to Daphne’s indignant assertion of her maternal travails. A latter section of the film sees the teenage Christopher (played by Alex Lawther) endure bullies at boarding school and enlist in the army on the advent of WWII. This feels a little hurried, and there’s something unavoidably manipulative about the resolution of Christopher’s military service. Even so, sentimentality is mostly kept at arm’s reach – unlike the famous bear, the film doesn’t overindulge in the honey.

 

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