“Goodbye Christopher Robin” (2016)
Running Time: 107 minutes
Written by: Frank Cottrell-Boyce & Simon Vaughan
Directed by: Simon Curtis
Featuring: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, and Kelly Macdonald
Daphne Milne: “You know what writing a book against war is like? It’s like writing a book against Wednesdays. Wednesdays… are a fact of life, and if you don’t like them, you could just stay in bed, but you can’t stop them because Wednesdays are coming and if today isn’t actually a Wednesday it soon will be.”
There are many films produced, in particular period pieces that cover events or play out like biographies that trade heavily on sentimentality, they attempt to get an audience on side by substituting fact or reality for some sort of imagined time where everything was better, when what you had in the past is lost in the present, whether that is music, family, places or anything else. In my mind this is cheap, quick, as well as being extremely unhealthy for a variety of reasons, the foremost being that this leads to people living in the past, ignoring the present and being afraid of a future. This new film “Goodbye Christopher Robin” (2017) could have traded on this but opts for a different narrative where there is a reality taking place, for the most part anyway – it works well, and may surprise audiences who are unaware of the true story behind one of the most beloved children’s stories of any age, ‘Winnie the Pooh’.
What screenwriters Frank Cottrell-Boyce & Simon Vaughan have done long with director Simon Curtis, is to bring to light the origins of A.A. Milne’s ‘Winnie the Pooh’, where the inspiration came from as well as what was happening within the Milne family at the time. It is also a statement of not only how A.A. Milne felt about war after his experiences in World War I, but how many survivors of that war had to come home, carrying on like life was back to normal – of course they were all dealing with emotions that they were taught were meant to be locked away. The creators of this film have (almost) all had experiences in bringing true stories to the screen with varying results, mostly they are tinged with reality so as to bring the idea of conflict in creation to audiences – they seem to say that creation comes from conflict or unhappiness in some form – which judging from this film may be true.
The film begins with A. A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) – nicknamed “Blue” by his friends and family fighting in the Battle of the Somme, then resuming his life in England while suffering shell shock, and having a child with wife Daphne (Margot Robbie). She was hoping for a girl and is disappointed to instead have a son whom they name Christopher Robin Milne but call “Billy.” They hire a nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) who is given primary responsibility for raising the child.
Blue is having difficulty resuming his writing and relocates the family to a house in the country with wooded acreage. Daphne resents the move and at one point returns to London for an extended period. When Olive takes leave to care for her dying mother, Blue and Billy (Will Tilston) are left to fend for themselves for a time. Reluctantly at first, Blue takes Billy along on walks in the woods and begins making up stories about the boy’s adventures with the stuffed animals the parents have bought for him along the way.
This film has so many themes as well as narrative flourishes that at times it threatens to come off the rails but ties all its plot points into a tidy conclusion that while it skirts the truth, does illustrate a family at a precarious time with many faults that did create something completely unique in ‘Winnie the Pooh’ that survives today, despite obstacles as well as true family tragedy.
This is first and foremost a story about family, that shows three very unique individuals who battle with each other for the entirety of their lives which I am sure many families can identify with. All good stories will have reflections of real life, this one does too, but with an added twist. The twist is of course how the father and son create a world of their own that is then turned into a publishing phenomenon that still exists today, not only within books, but toys, many movies and almost any other form you can think of in ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and his world including his human confidant Christopher Robin.
The parents here seem to be the ultimate party couple of the 1920s, with a social life as well as status that many would kill for even by todays standards – they figure, without any real thought, that they should have a child as they think this is what is expected of them. However like many young parents they have no idea what they are getting themselves in for, are unwillingly to let go of their pre-child lifestyle, so let the nanny raise the boy – he really is looked on as an aspect of their lives, not part of it and certainly not central to it. Of course this has the effect of alienating Billy, which leads to the issues that will complicate all of their lives later on in the story.
The relationships that exist between parents and their children is not only a strong one but can also at the same time be fragile. We witness this first hand in “Goodbye Christopher Robin” where both mother and father love their child but somehow find it difficult to be parents, instead they opt as entertainer (mother) and absent father which means Billy is constantly craving attention or mimicking them in everyday life. It is not until the creation of ‘Pooh’ that we see some king of loving relationship between Blue and Billy, which actually only lasts a few weeks, but the memory is kept alive up until Blue decides to really push the bear in the mass market thereby betraying his son, which in this film he learns too late. This betrayal as well as the effect this has on the relationships between Billy and his parents is not fully explored in this film, which is one of the inconsistences between reality, and fiction, which cannot be overlooked in deciding on whether this film is worth watching.
This is where the sentimentality of the film does some damage particularly in the conclusion of the narrative, which seems to indicate that Billy once back from the war returns home to his parents, thereby mending fences. This actually bellies what happened in truth, in fact Billy and his parents had a fractious relationship which lasted their entire lives, they were estranged, even mother and son did not talk for the last fifteen years of her life – which is extremely sad, not what the film would like you to think. There is a hint of how Billy felt about he commercialization of ‘Winnie’ in the closing moments of “Goodbye Christopher Robin” with one of the coda’s being:
“Christopher Robin never took any money for himself from the vast income generated by the stories.”
This has to be one of the most important pieces of information as it reflects how Billy felt about his and Blue’s creation. In fact there is a piece in the film where Billy reflects on how he experiences while in the Army during World War II how people felt about ‘Pooh’, in that they felt happiness in that fictionalized world – in reality the War opened his eyes more to the mass marketing that took place as well as the loss he felt of an intimate story that he thought he owned. The question is does any of this matter, when watching what is a part of someone’s life, as well as the creation that made them household names? The simple answer is not really as the movie does exactly what it set out to do and that is tell a whimsical story about a family, their relationships as well as the creation of ‘Winnie the Pooh’, which it does while doing what hundreds of movies have done in the past, that is bend the truth to make the fiction seem like fact.
Apart from the amazing story this film tells, it also has a great cast that are all superb in their roles, with Domhnall Gleeson as A.A Milne, Margot Robbie as Daphne, Will Tilston as Billy and the most experienced actor in the cast Kelly Macdonald as Olive. There is no doubt that it is Gleeson and Tilston who have the most to do as father and son, they have to navigate their way through some very different emotions together which that execute extremely well. It is also not surprising that while Robbie is growing as an actress, taking on bigger and flashier roles (like “I, Tonya” (2017) she does not have a huge amount to do in this role, in fact she comes across as a flaky, selfish wife and mother. What was pleasing to see was Kelly McDonald cast in a smaller role than you might think, but is the emotional anchor to the film as well a conduit for parents and son to operate through, her character is also the audiences way into this world of highly charged emotion. McDonald was surely the right choice as one of the loves of Billy’s life. In saying that in regard to the adults, it is newcomer Will Tilston as eight-year-old Billy who shines and steals the movie from the more experienced adults. The movie comes alive whenever Tilston is onscreen playing Billy like a pro, never dropping the veneer of the boy who had such a complicated childhood as well as seemingly indifferent parents – he shines in a role that proves casting is so important when trying to convince audiences of a complicated boy whose childhood stories were shared with the world.
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” is definitely a flawed film in terms of its relationship with the truth but this shouldn’t be something that dissuades audiences from seeing it, especially in cinemas as it does hold some universal truths about love, familial ties as well as being a story about one of the true phenomenon’s of the 20th century. What I also loved about the film is that it shares some of the same story telling DNA as other movies this year based around real people, Darkest Hour (2017) comes to mind immediately that trades some of its truth for audience pleasing moments. Not only that I was struck by the parents to Billy who echoed another Oscar nominated film Lady-Bird (2017) in the depiction of parents who do not have a clue how to even talk to their children on the most basic of levels. There is a lesson to all current and prospective parents to not take children for granted or to ignore their feelings as the price paid in their adulthood may be to much to bear in later life.
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” is in cinemas now.