MOVIE REVIEW: Goodbye Christopher Robin

(Image by David Appleby for Twentieth Century Fox)

(Image by David Appleby for Twentieth Century Fox)

Special Presentation selection of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival


Simon Curtis’ Goodbye Christopher Robin is a cinematic quilt collecting experiences from many different narrative themes.  A few patches carry the pattern of biographical films, chronicling life’s highlights and lowlights within a well-to-do family and their hired caretaker.  Others carry the created images of a writer’s world-building legend.  The threads binding those quilt pieces are a woven blend of the barbed wire of post-traumatic stress disorder and the smoothly silken cords of childhood whimsy. The experience of snuggling up with the Goodbye Christopher Robin blanket of testimony and memories is as affectingly dramatic as it is comfortably warm.

As the title hints, this film delves into the personal genesis and success of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh series.  The renowned author and playwright, played by Domhnall Gleeson, has become a staunch and spiteful critic of war since his service time during World War I.  Milne is married to socialite-centered Daphne, a distant and detached wife and mother played mostly the regrettable periphery by Gleeson’s About Time co-star Margot Robbie. The two share an exuberant young son (debuting newcomer Will Tilston) named Christopher Robin Milne and self-nicknamed “Billy Moon.”

Continuously troubled by the many stressful triggers of trembling PTSD in London’s busy West End, Milne seeks serenity to write, leaving most Christopher’s guided upbringing to the nanny Olive (a steady Kelly Macdonald).  Affectionately called “Blue” by his wife and son, the patriarch picks up the family and relocates to a country estate in East Sussex.  It is amid the peaceful woodland and new opportunities of shared quality time with his son that A.A. would develop his defining work with visiting illustrator Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore).

LESSON #1: PLAY WITH YOUR KIDS-- Olive does an excellent job bonding with Christopher for routine and caring, but nothing beats the real thing from mom and dad.  Make the time.  Feed the imagination.  Loosen restrictions. Put away work and go get dirty outside.  It will keep you young and remove misery like PTSD that a child shouldn’t have to see.  Talk to them and allow the blubbering along the way.  You’ll make more memories doing that than your next great work.

Ornate aesthetics paint a heavenly setting for Goodbye Christopher Robin, displayed in front of Carter Burwell’s tender score.  Brooklyn costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux and first-time feature production designer David Roger delivers inviting suits and interiors while Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn cinematographer Ben Smithard captures every possible beam of leaf-split sunlight in the arboreal exteriors shot in the same Ashdown Forest realm of Milne’s inspiration.  The film looks the part as a cradle for make-believe.

Milne started out writing his literary tales especially for his son by name, but the franchise’s widespread success turned the unprepared Christopher into an adored public symbol.  

LESSON #2: THE CAUTIONS OF CHILD CELEBRITY STATUS-- It’s a little cruder in subject matter to this film being reviewed, but if you fondly remember how much the Michael Bolton character in Mike Judge’s Office Space loathed having a name matching a cheesy pop icon, multiply that to a national level of adoration with the real Christopher Robin.  To put it plainly, don’t name a character in a book after yourself or your family.  

The international popularity instigated piles of fan mail and exploitative media attention before it became too much.  But the damage was done.  A school life’s worth of bullying evolved into a grown man’s (now with The Imitation Game’s Alex Lawther as the aged Christopher) heart filled with resentment as he heads off to war like his father before him.  

LESSON #3: YOUR CHILDREN WILL ALWAYS BE YOUR CHILDREN-- A son may grow and age into adulthood, but the eyes of a parent will always see the little boy who stole their hearts and reminds them of happiness.  In many ways, the Winnie-the-Pooh stories froze his son in time for A.A. Milne.  He could always call upon a place to remember his “Billy Moon.”  I think every parent has that vision of reminiscence.  

Though not always engrossing or compelling without thick sweetness necessary to coat circumstances, the shared moments between “Blue” and “Billy Moon” are what bind and lift Goodbye Christopher Robin.  Too often playing the villain lately, this stands as Domhnall Gleeson’s most mature performance to date, characterizing startling and challenging war veteran tremors.  At 34, he shows true leading man command in playing a historical figure and father role as well.  Beaming sentimentality from ear to ear that pushes away his pronounced frown, Will Tilston has the uncanny ability to turn Gleeson’s folded brow and pinched smirk into a wide smile with sparkling eyes, an effect he will pass on to many audiences viewing the film.

LESSON #4: SUPPRESSING SORROW WITH HAPPINESS-- The spirit within Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh work brought calmness and catharsis to an entire country, and later the world, in the lean years that followed World War I and continued as a hallmark anchor for happiness when war would return again thirty years later.  Milne’s fireside and bedtime story creations had that power.  To know it started with one man creating with his child makes it more special.