Goodbye Christopher Robin

Goodbye Christopher Robin review – delightful take on the difficult birth of Winnie-the-Pooh
4 / 5 stars

W
ith its bittersweet interweaving of fact and fantasy, youthful innocence and adult trauma, this tale of the creation of a children’s classic could have been called Saving Mr Milne. Like Mary Poppins, Winnie-the-Pooh occupies a sacred space in our hearts and anyone wishing to co-opt some of that magic must tread very lightly indeed. Director Simon Curtis’s movie could easily have tripped (like Piglet) and burst its balloon as it evokes a dappled glade of happiness surrounded by the monstrous spectres of two world wars. Instead, it skips nimbly between light and dark, war and peace, like a young boy finding his way through an English wood, albeit one drenched with shafts of sugary, Spielbergian light.

AA Milne, Christopher Robin and the curse of Winnie-the-Pooh
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We open in Ashdown Forest in 1941, where the arrival of a telegram foretells tragedy – the farewell of the title? It’s a moment around which writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce (working from an original script by A Bear Named Winnie co-writer Simon Vaughan) builds his cleverly structured narrative, bookending the fantastical adventures of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore et al with the real-life battles of their father-and-son creators. Spiralling back to 1916, we find Domhnall Gleeson’s AA Milne (“Blue” to his friends) in the trenches of France, the horror of which haunts him on his return to a bling-filled life in Blighty.
Abandoning London for rural East Sussex, where he intends to write an antiwar book (despite the protests of his socialite wife, Daphne), Milne finds himself blocked, until a few strolls with his young son, Christopher Robin, in their “hundred acre paradise” brings forth unexpected beauty. “Are we writing a book?” asks the boy whom everyone calls “Billy Moon”. “I thought we were just having fun.”
Credited with rekindling the joy wiped out by the Great War, Milne’s innocent poems and stories become an international sensation. But such success comes at a price, as young Billy finds his perfect childhood put up for sale. “If I’m in a book,” he protests, “people will think I’m not real”, a problem intensified as his parents proceed to parade him around “like a show pony”. When Billy is photographed alongside his toy bear’s real-life namesake at London Zoo, the fact that both are imprisoned in a public enclosure does not go unnoticed.

With his pudding-bowl hair and gender-neutral smocks (plaudits to ace costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux), young Will Tilston as Billy looks the spit of EH Shepard’s timeless illustrations, so much so that director Curtis is able to slip from live action to gently animated illustration with seamless ease. Whether he’s pulling on his boots or dragging his bear up the stairs, these images have a warm familiarity, tapping into vast wellsprings of affection.
Meanwhile, the script contrives to play the greatest hits: the little boy kneeling at the foot of the bed; the “hot’s so hot” in the bath; the circular tracks in the snow; the bees concerned only with making honey. A game of garden cricket evokes memories of John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, while the flashbulbs and popping champagne corks of success transport Milne back to the blood-soaked fields of France.

The supremely versatile Gleeson is excellent as the PTSD-afflicted Milne, who’s “had enough of making people laugh – I want to make them see!” – an ambition that Daphne views as “perfectly horrid”. As Christopher Robin’s brittle mother (“Are you my manager?”), Margot Robbie draws the short straw; hers is an unsympathetic role, rather unnuanced in its opportunism. By contrast, Kelly Macdonald wins hearts as Olive (AKA “Nou”), Billy Moon’s Poppins-like nanny who becomes both the moral anchor and the emotional lightning rod at the centre of the film. As the older Christopher Robin, Alex Lawther raises later-life resentments above the level of mere anti-parental petulance – no mean feat.
Throughout, Carter Burwell’s score tinkles and surges, employing piano and harp to pluck mercilessly at the heartstrings, assisted by Al Bowlly’s 1939 recording of A Man and His Dream. It says much about Cottrell-Boyce’s script that the deeper themes of betrayal and despair – that Frankenstein-like feeling of being overshadowed and undone by one’s own creation – survive amid the schmaltz.
In the end, however, it’s those dusty shafts of optimistic light that endure, bathing the film in a reassuring glow. Fittingly, Goodbye Christopher Robin is dedicated to the late producer Steve Christian, who died earlier this year, and to whose wide-ranging legacy this is a fine tribute.