Like every other person in the world who was born after 1926, the adventures and misadventures of Winnie The Pooh were a constant presence during my childhood years. Though the names of author A. A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin are ones that seem have been etched on my brain since day one, it wasn’t until the trailer for Goodbye Christopher Robin was released that I realised I knew very little about the facts behind the fiction. Back in 2013, Saving Mr. Banks, the look behind the curtain of another childhood staple Mary Poppins, turned out to be my favourite film of the year, so I was excited to see what this similar sounding slice of nostalgia had to offer.
Give or take a few flashbacks, Goodbye Christopher Robin tells the story of the creation of Winnie The Pooh by A. A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), inspired by his young son Christopher ‘Billy Moon’ Robin (Will Tilston, Alex Lawther as an adult). The film takes us behind the curtain of the well known family and cuddly character to reveal a much more melancholy truth, one plagued by Milne’s post traumatic stress from his time served during World War I and the distain and hatred that his son developed for the books that he believed exploited his childhood, thrust him in to the limelight and made the rest of his life a living hell.
The drama is predictably twee as one has come to expect from a biopic of this nature, but what is surprising about Goodbye Christopher Robin is that it pulls no punches when it comes to making the audience feel somewhat guilty for playing their own part in the everlasting success of Winnie The Pooh. The film portrays the only happy times of young Billy Moon’s life to be when he played in the woods with his father and when he spent time with his loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), with the family dynamic being completed by the in and out presence of his somewhat problematic mother Daphne played by Margot Robbie. It’s upsetting to witness the almost overnight change that occurs, when the affectionately nicknamed Billy Moon is forced to become the Christopher Robin that we all know and love, and though the film stays very safe in its story telling, the emotion of the story certainly comes through and I have to admit to shedding more than one tear during proceedings.
If there were anything for which to criticise this general crowd pleaser, it would be that perhaps not as much screen time is spent on the melancholy aftermath of the Winnie The Pooh invention as is spent on the lighter ‘creation’ scenes. As with any origin type story, there is a sense of satisfaction from being able to take a peek at the history of something with which you are familiar, but I feel that the true power of the film was in the narrative that unfolded afterwards, and these scenes felt all too rushed in the final third. I mentioned Saving Mr. Banks in the introduction, and there is no doubt that both pictures share a bittersweet sense of familiar nostalgia blending with jarring, previously unknown context, and whilst Goodbye Christopher Robin is a perfectly solid, at times emotional drama, it lacks something of the magic that the Mary Poppins based biopic possessed in spades.
As A. A. Milne, Domhnall Gleeson provides strong, stoic screen presence. As a man trying to connect with his son, keep his marriage together and battle his traumatic war demons, the performance carries more layers than it might initially seem, and it’s thanks to Gleeson’s expert touch that the character doesn’t become bogged down in any one element of the story. Will Tilston is effortlessly adorable as the young ‘Billy Moon’, avoiding many of the annoying tendencies of child actors to create a really believable and endearing chemistry with his on screen father. Later on, Alex Lawther gives the audience a shock to the system in the shape of an adult, bitter, guarded Christopher Robin. For such a brief performance, the power of the film really does rest on Lawther’s characterisation being such a stark contrast to his childhood self, and though his scenes are limited, they are some of the most memorable in the entire picture.
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Margot Robbie as Daphne, the glamorous flapper who seems entirely disinterested in traditional family life until she think it has fallen apart, is clearly presented as the key antagonist of the story, though as the scenes pass and the narrative unfolds, one comes to understand that the real antagonist was that cuddly old bear. Robbie looks fantastic and just about wins her battle with an overly pronounced posh British accent, but there is no doubt that the more meaningful female performance comes from Kelly Macdonald as nanny Olive. Macdonald exudes all of the soothing, comforting, loving compassion that Robbie’ Daphne does not, and her place as surrogate mother figure only becomes stronger as the story goes on.
Overall, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a neat and tidy biopic with a significant melancholy edge, giving it more worth than perhaps some of the saccharine sweet examples of the genre. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, and it certainly evokes an emotional response in an audience, but in truth I can’t help but feel that viewers are swept along on a wave of nostalgic connection rather than the film being truly great in its own right.