With Winnie the Pooh being such a compassionate portrayal of childhood imagination, it is perhaps surprising to find that A. A. Milne didn’t really know how to be a father. By his doing, eight-year-old Christopher Robin Milne would cease to be the curious nature-loving son of a beloved author, his identity now irrevocably conflated with his fictional alter-ego: the infamous owner of Winnie the Pooh. As with so many child stars, this was a disorienting experience made no easier by a distant relationship with his parents, and his initial resentment of Pooh’s disruptive legacy is well documented. This makes this behind-the-scenes look at Milne’s inspiration a sobering reality.
A. A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) was already famous by the time he was sent packing for the Great War. A confident and popular playwright, he returned from the front a bitter and scarred man, here suggested to suffer from post-traumatic stress. He had no dreams of children, much less writing for them. In fact no sooner had he and his love Daphne (Margot Robbie) grudgingly welcomed Christopher Robin (Will Tilston) into the world (not a girl, as hoped) that they were looking for ways to delegate responsibility. They took on a nanny, Olive (Kelly McDonald), who in the absence of his parents would become Christopher’s closest friend and guardian. Meanwhile Arthur and Daphne would continue the party lifestyle that Daphne hoped would help to counter Milne’s post-war moroseness and inspire his writing revival.
Only when Milne opted to absent his family from the bangs and crashes of the city to the countryside was he confronted with an opportunity to finally get to know his boy – not only Christopher but the toys that would inspire a phenomenon that would eventually surrender their innocent English idyll to the world.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is admirable in its attention to character, though its grasp on history might seem wilfully packaged for those a little more cynical of the filmmaker’s need to muscle an emotionally satisfying tale into a timeline. It is satisfying, but at times GCR almost feeds into the neat stories Olive tells Christopher to help him understand the world of fame he has been plunged into. Even so, to director Simon Curtis’ credit there is an attempt to subvert the rose-tinted glow that can characterise wartime Britain in favour of highlighting the damaging emotional withdrawal as people hastily looked to forget the years 1914 to 1918.
The nuanced screenplay from Simon Vaughan and Frank Cottrell Boyce might struggle to reconcile the themes of fame, childhood wonder and post-war trauma seamlessly at all times, but at least it is not satisfied with reciting events as a historian might. GCR delves into the attitudes of the time and the consequences of a repressed stiff upper lip – even making a few canny deductions such as the unmentioned post-traumatic stress that Milne shares with his illustrator, EH Shepard – to at least help us understand what inhibited these people from truly understanding one another.
Of course when there is a lack of communication, blind spots open up. And sadly, as fame beckoned, Christopher’s welfare became one of them. Ultimately the fleeting nature of his and Milne’s time together in the woods would be, in Christopher’s mind, poisoned by the thought that this was merely research for a more commercial motive.
Having a cast that is well equipped to convey the range of challenges and flaws that dogged these people is a major boon. While McDonald is, as ever, a charming and comforting presence on screen, Robbie and Gleeson’s reunion after About Time is particularly engaging and is all the more impressive for the vastly differing chemistry that they manage to create. The performance Curtis has managed to get from Will Tilston as Christopher Robin is equally notable. He’s cheeky without being corny, watchful without being wooden, and earnest without being annoying. And in a largely restrained film that champions delivery over style, that’s quite an effort and goes a long way to making this an effective and affecting tale of neglect.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is in cinemas from 23rd November through 20th Century Fox.