Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin

A quite haunting depiction of the breakdown of a father-son relationship, this fairy tale has a bittersweet ending. Beautiful.

Those expecting the sugary honey pot to runneth over in director Simon Curtis’ take on the father-son relationship behind A. A. Milne’s beloved Winnie the Pooh books will instead experience something of a bee’s sting in Goodbye Christopher Robin.

Co-written by Simon Vaughan and Frank Cottrell Boyce, the later of whom penned The Railway Man and Millions, there’s something of both that post-war trauma and kids’ adventure movie here. Largely drawn from the diaries of Christopher Robin Milne (played in youth by an impeccable Will Tilston), he was known to his nearest and dearest as Billy Moon. There’s a fair helping of darkness in his origin story, and bitterness from the man he grew up to be (Alex Lawther).

Understandably so, Billy felt that his childhood daydreams had been mined by his distant, workaholic father Alan (Domhnall Gleeson) during a particularly grim bout of writers’ block, and that he and his even more absent mother Daphne (Margot Robbie) manipulated his youth, monetising his fancies for their considerable gain. In real life, Billy refused all moneys from his father’s estate and maintained a lifelong friendship with the nanny, Olive (a wonderful Kelly Macdonald), he felt truly brought him up.

Where Goodbye Christopher Robin gains much of it strength is in refusing to fall to caricature. Though Robbie is somewhat saddled with an icy party queen self-interest that’s laid on a little too thick and too swiftly redeemed, Gleeson gets much more to work with. The writers suggest that much of his distance was a result of what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder, inflicted during his time in the trenches during the Great War. There’s more horror in the fear that the world may one day rend in two again.

While Daphne wants him to forget all his cares and dance the night away with her, the mere pop of a champagne cork is enough to set him to panic, necessitating an escape to a country estate much to her chagrin. Alan has sympathy in the shape of fellow veteran E.H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) who would eventually bring to illustrated life the Hundred Acre Wood that Alan filches from Billy’s imagination during an unexpected bonding session.

Billy’s pain is all the more understandable when the world, so enamoured with tales of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore et al, comes a knocking at their door. If at first his parents resist a tad, then pretty soon they are pimping their son to all and sundry, with long hours of phone interviews and toyshop appearances to follow. Everyone wants a piece of Billy and his bear, and is the proffered caveat that the world so badly need joy before the next great cataclysm broke out really enough of an excuse? Their oversight functions as something of a timely reminder to contemporary parents about paying more attention to their kids in these tablet and TV-heavy times.

If Curtis lays it on a bit heavy in spots, it never tips over into treacle and, aided by Tilston and Macdonald’s performances in particular as well as Carter Burwell’s subtly stirring score and Ben Smithard’s suitably dreamy cinematography, Goodbye Christopher Robin is ultimately a deeply affecting study of a quiet little tragedy.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords