Goodbye Christopher RobinReviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 11/07/17 10:09:08
To the short subgenre of biopics about children’s-book authors (Lewis Carroll in "Dreamchild," J.M. Barrie in "Finding Neverland," P.L. Travers in "Saving Mr. Banks") we must now add the modestly touching "Goodbye Christopher Robin," about A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh.This one, though, concerns itself more with postwar trauma than with the usual biopic tropes and beats. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) goes off to World War I, and is injured in the notoriously brutal Battle of the Somme. Once home with his young wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), Milne broods on war, how it seems to render all the world’s sources of happiness impotent. Then Daphne, with misgivings, bears him a child, who will lead him out of himself and into fame and fortune — and a whole other set of problems.
Directed with a stiff sense of dignity by Simon Curtis, Goodbye Christopher Robin is about men and boys, fathers and sons, losing and finding themselves. Curtis, though, with Gleeson’s help, convinces us that Milne has been broken by the nightmare meat-grinder of the Great War, and this runs underneath every scene Milne is in. It’s kept quiet, though, not obnoxiously obvious. And given that this is a very polite PG-rated film, with only the most oblique glimpses of war bloodshed, Curtis impressively conveys the eternal dread of the postwar life. We gather that Milne saw hell. Out of this darkness, improbably, blossoms one of English letters’ most enduring creations of whimsy (not beloved by all, of course, as those who recall Dorothy Parker’s legendary dragging of The House at Pooh Corner can testify).
Inspired by the playtime of his son Christopher (Will Tilston) using a variety of stuffed animals, Milne creates Ashdown Forest and its inhabitants, a place of safe and gentle adventure, as opposed to the real world and all its dangerous, vicious adventure. Milne gives himself a fantasy into which to escape, but in the meantime he has made an unwilling celebrity out of his son, upon whom the books’ Christopher Robin is based. The real Christopher is pressed into service hosting tea parties for lucky young contest winners and posing for photos with a fake Pooh bear. We spend most of our time with the younger Christopher, until the magic of movies telescopes time while he’s at school, so that he becomes a teenager (Alex Lawther) beaten and ridiculed by bullies because of his literary connection. It’s this Christopher, hardened after years of a public childhood, who decides to go off to war himself, this time World War II.
By then, we know what such a decision will do to Milne. A couple of fine, pained scenes between Milne and fellow WWI veteran E.H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) — who goes on to illustrate the Pooh books — show us what this shared experience does to men, and there’s an equally fine scene near the end, when another pair of men sit and take note of the beauty that the world can also offer. When things look bleak, Daphne excoriates Milne for “fixing it” so that their son (who’d failed the physical) could go to war, but what could Milne do? It was what Christopher wanted, and for Milne to deny him would have driven the last wedge between them. Sidebar stuff like this, which has little to do with the origins of Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore, deals with things we seldom see in movies; a father and a son bonded by horror, ready to embrace the future and abandon the agony of the past.
Much of Goodbye Christopher Robin is honorable, even if the tears are jerked a little too strenuously near the finish. One thing, however, prevents me from giving the film more than a middling mark. I know this isn’t her movie, but the cavalier, seemingly unloving behavior of Daphne throughout the film is baffling, all the more so because no one else seems to notice it. She leaves her husband until he starts writing again; she seems ruthlessly unsentimental, which is fine, but it seems at odds with everything else in the movie. Margot Robbie plays her as a borderline flapper who seems to yearn for champagne and glitz over a stuffy old house with a stuffy old writer. (When they married, Daphne was 23, Milne 31.)
Eventually, offscreen apparently, Daphne gentles into a vaguely worried mom tinkering in the garden, and Kelly Macdonald steals the movie as Olive, Christopher’s faithful caretaker. Macdonald brings that tired cliché the selfless nanny to life, and her expressions of despair and later joy are far more compelling than anything else going on. Goodbye Christopher Robin is refined, tactful, competent. Its dark undertone of war and its deforming power lifts it above the usual schmucky Hollywood stuff. But it’s missing that gratifying sense of everything coming together to create a vision based on subtle thematic work — that almost audible click when the elements hang together coherently and with originality of purpose. (We feel this, for example, at several points in Pulp Fiction.)The movie seems to be about a man who, when creating a fantasy into which to escape war memories, inadvertently drives his own son into another war. How does a movie even begin to deal with that? This one doesn’t.
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