Goodbye Christopher Robin: Trauma, magic, curdled fame and Tigger too

By Jim Slotek

(Rating: B-plus)

There are sharp narrative turns in Goodbye Christopher Robin, the somewhat-vinegary tale of how the “hunny”-loving Winnie-the-Pooh came to be. Most of them are in intriguing and thought-provoking directions.

Director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn, Woman In Gold) paints a picture of a sunshine story born of despair, with Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, The Revenant) playing Pooh creator A.A. Milne. We meet him, drenched in blood, in the trenches in WWI, segueing abruptly and effectively to his return to polite British upper-crust society and its social niceties. There the shell-shocked veteran is expected to return to his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) and his career as a writer of jolly plays.

 Oh bother. Gleeson, Tilston and friend in Goodbye Christopher Robin

Oh bother. Gleeson, Tilston and friend in Goodbye Christopher Robin

It is, unsurprisingly, not to be. Milne is frozen, his wife is frustrated and they have a child to help him regain his footing. The author believes he must let go of frivolity and write a book that forces Britons to face the waste of life and horror they abetted.

Again, unsurprisingly, there isn’t a demand for such a book. And Milne follows a whim to escape, moving his family to a pastoral home in East Sussex (much to the chagrin of his socialite spouse).

What follows is an exercise in subtle magical realism, where the no-longer-functioning writer comes to know his son (Will Tilston), known by his nickname Billy Moon rather than his now-famous birth-name Christopher Robin. Absences by his lonely wife and occasional leaves by the surrogate-mother nanny Nou (Kelly Macdonald) leave them forced to spend time together in Ashdown Forest, inventing wild animals and, gradually, the personalities of anthropomorphic pals that would become known as Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo.

Eventually, they are joined in their imagination-assisted adventures by the adult Milne’s only remaining friend, the illustrator E. H. Shepard (winningly played by Stephen Campbell Moore), a fellow traumatized veteran who would go on to create the signature look of the Winnie-the-Pooh books.

It is a beautiful place-of-consciousness, doomed by Milne’s decision to put it all on paper.

Milne, you see, was wrong. Britain, and indeed the world, didn’t need to be reminded of a horror it had just experienced. They sought escape, as per Daphne’s own motto, "if you don't think about dreadful things, they cease to exist." And the childlike innocence he captured in a bottle with Winnie-the-Pooh became a sensation, to the crushing extent we understand all-too-well today.

With that, Goodbye Christopher Robin enters its painful middle act, one which sees Christopher Robin (but pointedly not Billy Moon) become, arguably, the world’s first child star. Reporters fight to interview him. His dad wishes him a happy birthday by phone over a live radio program. Daphne finally finds the life she’s sought as the toast of New York (“It’s like London, with more money!”). And her son, deemed to be the luckiest boy in the world, becomes one of the unhappiest (deserted by his nanny via marriage, bullied in school for his name).

Curtis is not a subtle director, which may be why each act of Goodbye Christopher Robin is so sharply different. The last act -  in which Billy goes missing in the war and presumed dead (a trite plot development but for the fact it actually happened) and father-and-son reconcile in a clunkily sentimental way -  seems tacked on by a studio note.

Still, Goodbye Christopher Robin is one of those films that makes you think about the reality beneath the surface, unhappiness beneath cheer, trauma beneath the stiff upper lip. And the acting, from Robbie’s wonderfully shallow flibbertigibbet, to the hesitant-but-ultimately-rich father-and-son connection between Gleeson and Tilston, adds to the feeling that this is how Pooh really happened, bother and all.

Goodbye Christopher Robin. Directed by Simon Curtis. Starring: Domnhall Gleeson, Will Tilston and Margot Robbie. Opening Friday, October 13 in Toronto. Friday, October 20 in Vancouver. Friday, October 27 wide.