British period piece explores travails of real Christopher Robin
What Charles Dickens was to Ebenezer Scrooge, what J.M. Barrie was to Peter Pan, the English author A.A. Milne was to Christopher Robin. Each writer published popular tales of iconic characters, earning roaring applause and trainloads of money. “Goodbye Christopher Robin” digs into the origins and consequences of Milne’s mythic Winnie-the-Pooh stories in ways that are charming and ultimately poignant.
Creating a character permanently engraved in our collective memories might seem like a writer’s dream come true, but for the Milne family, it came at a cost. Unlike Scrooge and Peter Pan, Christopher Robin Milne was a real person.
This British period film’s deeply personal look into the origins of the small young boy in the Hundred Acre Wood offers childish joys shadowed by tragedy. If you’re expecting a lighter-than-air Pooh spinoff, the opening should get you to pack away your childish fantasies.
As we watch grisly nighttime combat during World War I, A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) comes of age in unrelating hell. The film follows him through the first third of the 20th century as he wrestles with the psychological horrors of war, what was then called shell shock and now known as post traumatic stress.
Transformed by the war, he re-enters a London social life of moneyed self-indulgence into which he no longer fits. A playwright of some acclaim, he wants to write a great pacifist work to end violent militarism. “I’m tired of making people laugh,” he says. “I want to make them see.”
That proves to be an uphill battle. His wife, Daphne, played by Margot Robbie as a charming, conceited social diva, calls Milne’s idea for a political polemic “perfectly horrid.” He moves his wife and son to the English countryside in order to focus on the project, but the rural solitude and silence leave him blocked as a writer, with little sense how to express his feelings. Gleeson does justice to the frustration of this quiet, self-conscious introvert.
While taking a walk in the woods with son Christopher (played at this age by the adorable Will Tilston), inspiration for a trifle of a story to entertain the youngster strikes like lightning. He recruits a friend to add illustrations of a boy and his toy animals and begins discussing the best approach for a story that can lift Britain’s morale after the war.
“Are you writing a book?” Christopher asks. “I thought we were just having fun.” “We’re writing a book and we’re having fun,” his father replies. “I didn’t know you could do both at the same time,” Christopher replies, foreshadowing the stormy weather brewing.
The small book surpasses the wildest expectations, spawns three sequels and becomes a global brand. But Christopher loses his mother, getting sympathetic care from his watchful new governess (Kelly Macdonald) and repaying it with a devotion deeper than any bond he has to his family. Meanwhile, his father is elbowed aside by the adoring public, with “the real Christopher Robin” becoming the focus of all the attention. “He must be the happiest boy on earth,” one onlooker sighs.
Of course, the moral of the film is that fame and success can extract a huge price. It was impossible for the Milne family to find privacy. Every major player here to some degree suffers the burden of people’s expectations, but none so much as Christopher. Being perplexed by unwanted scrutiny from strangers hardens into troubled resentment as he advances into young adulthood (now capably played by Alex Lawther).
Movingly scored by Carter Burwell (who often works with the Coen brothers), “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is a film with a good supply of heart, plucking our emotional strings through the essential sweetness of the story and its darker elements of conflict. It’s a fresh footnote to the story that may change hearts and minds about the cherished character.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 • @colincovert