Peter W. Sheehan, Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN. Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Will Tilston, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, and Alex Lawther. Directed by Simon Curtis. Rated PG (Mild themes). 107 min. Twentieth Century Fox.
This British drama tells the story of how an author created much loved children’s tales through interactions with his young son. The film aims to balance child-like wonder and imagination with the sadness and uncertainty of wartime and family tensions, and it gives an unusual biographical glimpse into the relationship of author, Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) to his young son, Christopher Robin.
Milne is a stressed war veteran, who fought, and was wounded, in the Battle of the Somme in World I. His relationship to his family becomes fragile as a result, and it was Christopher and his toys that drew Milne back to his family and inspired the magical world of Winnie the Pooh. His son’s toys included Pooh Bear, Tigger, Piglet and Roo, which lived in his home and ‘played’ in the Hundred Acre Wood around it. Milne writes about them with joy and fun, reconnecting with his son in his imaginary world. When he publishes the stories, he becomes famous, and his son too.
Christopher (Will Tilston), his mother, Daphne (Margot Robbie), and Christopher’s nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), are all swept up in the success of Milne’s books. Milne’s stories are a sensation, because they bring hope and warmth to a nation torn with grief. But for Milne and his family, they exact a cost that is personal and painful. All of Milne’s family become celebrities, and fame causes tension. Sadness, anger and frustration creep into their success.
This is a bitter-sweet film that is full of nostalgia, and it taps many themes. It addresses the impact of war, the difficulties of parenting well, the complexity of maintaining loving and caring relationships, the innocence of youth, and coping with the demands of fame.
Throughout, the film captures the whimsy and attractiveness of Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories, but the film works best dramatically as a story about father and son. Particularly impressive are the interactions between Milne and his son (Will Tilston) as a young child. They are marvellously natural and realistic, and Will Tilston is a delight to watch. The time Milne spends with his young son is a time that breaks down his own stiffness and reserve. His son grows older (Alex Lawther), but it is the innocence of young Christopher that captures best the spirit of the film. Margot Robbie as Daphne, Milne’s self-serving wife, plays an unsympathetic character, but acts her role well. Kelly Macdonald, as Christopher’s nanny, nicely anchor’s the family’s emotions.
The simple fact that Milne wrote about his own son makes the film biographically very significant. The real pain for Milne is that he found literary fame by writing about the characters he fantasised with his son, at the rare times they spoke naturally in the woods, while playing alone together.
The film is as much about the negative consequences of stardom as it is about family and social disharmony. Teddy bears are soft and cuddly, the film says, but celebrity status has teeth that can hurt. This is a film that explores movingly the clash between reality and childhood innocence. In addressing that clash, Christopher Robin later describes his father as ‘climbing on my infant shoulders....(leaving) me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son’.
This film captures childhood joy, but mixes it with adult angst. Its narrative is cleverly structured, and the film is well photographed. At its core, it communicates the sobering message that fame comes at too much of a cost, if it means that a child’s happiness is ransomed to achieve it.
Contrary to the spirit of Winnie the Pooh this film could be troubling for very young audiences. It is historically significant, insightful, well produced and directed, but disaffecting. It delivers a darker-than-expected exploration of a much-loved set of imaginary tales, and laying aside the teary reunion of its ‘happy ever after’ conclusion, its messages are delivered very movingly.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.