First, he was made an unwilling global megastar and now young Christopher Robin, son of Winnie-the-Pooh writer A. A. Milne, has become a metaphor. Better known in his early years as Billy Moon, C. R. Milne is an icon of humanity in Simon Curtis’ Goodbye Christopher Robin; a Heaney-esque symbol of the death of childhood and exploitative evils of the world. The true story of the creation of Milne’s beloved bear is surprisingly devastating and one possessing very little by way of a happy ending for its protagonists. Yet, with an ample spoonful of sugar (Saving Mr Banks is a spiritual sibling), Curtis’ film retelling of history is by equal measure twinkly and delightful. This hundred acre wood is thicketed with hugely winning adventure and yet tinged with saccharine sadness.
Instantly betraying its honeyed overall tone, Goodbye Christopher Robin begins with establishing shots that are every bit as lovely and sugared-up as would be expected from a cinematic retelling of the Winnie-the-Pooh story. No sunbeam is un-dappled across Curtis’ 107 minute runtime and not a shot passes by without hinting at golden nostalgia. In a deceptively simple film, it’s a clever touch that brilliantly captures the essence of Milne’s original stories and their phenomenal success. From first to last, deftly carved parallels are made between the loss of innocence felt across the world in the wake of the so-called Great War and the childhood that is stolen from Christopher – here played, for the most part, by a terrific Will Tilston and later Alex Lawther.
From a rural 1941 opening, the story segues to 1916 and the Western Front where the famous humorist Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is entrenched and suffering the trauma that will haunt the rest of his life. A transition reminiscent of the conclusion to James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, sees Milne flung back into London high society, a world of fashion and extravagance where people seem almost determined to move on as though nothing happened. ‘You know,’ says Margot Robbie’s unsympathetic Mrs Milne, ‘if you don’t think about a thing it doesn’t exist.’
The least satisfactorily explored individual of the film, Daphne Milne is a flippant socialite; she has a child because she believes it will make her husband happy and is quietly outraged at his inability to write. Naïve and troubled, it is a shame that Robbie, and her almost-successful Renée Zellweger accent, is left so peripherally to provide moments of humour (‘You do know it was just me talking and not the bear?’) with only hints of the sorrow that clearly pervaded her life.
When the family, plus nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald – lovely, of course), move out of London and to the countryside, it is only when the one-note Daphne departs, vowing to only return when her husband starts writing again, that wit becomes charm. Left alone to bond his son, it is here that the many adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh are born from woodland play and Christopher’s collection of teddy animals. It’s a delightful sequence and full of typically whimsical lines from scriptwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce. When Christopher informs his father that Tigger is a more appropriate character name than Tiger, he explains that this is because ‘It’s more tiggerish’. These scenes are a wash of loveliness, not least by virtue of the effect Christopher has on lighting Milne’s struggles with PTSD, and filled with illustrative additions akin to Bridge to Terabithia and the original drawings of E. H. Shephard (a sweet but affecting turn here by Stephen Cambell Moore).
Trauma follows, of course, and perhaps the biggest success of the film is the stylistic recreation of the public Christopher Robin, forced into photo shoots and bookshop tea parties, in his genderless, baby-blue smocks. Dressed up and displayed, Tilston will break hearts simply but virtue of how alike he seems to a china doll and how fragile in this comparison.
Yes, it’s all a little too sweet and yes the teary ending is a sugarcoated fallacy of reality but that is rather the point. Here is a film that charms in the viewing, and stings in the memory.