Film, Reviews, Screen

Goodbye Christopher Robin movie review: emotional biopic cheapened by chewy sweetness and candy-coated aesthetic

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There is a lot of sunshine billowing through trees in Goodbye Christopher Robin; a lot of glistening moments with bright green grass and the humming of birds and bees. The picturesque, picture book atmosphere created by director Simon Curtis and cinematographer Ben Smithard is what you might expect of a Winnie the Pooh movie – though this isn’t, strictly speaking, a Winnie the Pooh movie. Rather a semi-biopic of its creator, author A.A. Milne, who is played with waxy standoffishness by Domhnall Gleeson.

Or perhaps that should be “creators.” Illustrator E.H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore), who sketched those iconic pencil drawings, also appears in the film, though relegated to an uninteresting walk-on role. A more prominent figure is the titular boy, who is both a character in Milne’s world of anthropomorphic animals and the author’s son. The film makes it clear the round-faced pipsqueak was responsible for many things, including naming characters (no points for creativity for calling a piglet “Piglet”, though) as well as inspiring the story’s very raison d’être.

The problem with Curtis’ gleaming, candy-coated aesthetic is that it reeks of artifice, which hardly bodes well with notions of historical accuracy. The director asks us to take his film seriously, while fostering an environment that says: Mary Poppins couldn’t make it today, but she’s welcome anytime. Complicating matters are the film’s hints of magical realism – mostly used in scene transitions, and largely for the purpose of evoking Milne’s experiences on the WWI battlefield.

The author and playwright, for example, tosses a cricket ball in the air – which then explodes. For a split second the audience may be forgiven for thinking the gadget inventor Q, another quintessentially British creation, might have got his hands on Milne’s stuff, before realisation dawns that the film has whisked us elsewhere: to the frontline.

Milne suffers hallucinations and a crippling case of PTSD. There is no evidence that he actually had this (yet to be defined) condition, used by screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan to justify the man’s distant, at times ill-disposed demeanour. The author – a self-professed pacifist – did write about the squalor of war, which no doubt impacted him terribly. But the mental condition depicted by Curtis is next-level, Milne bursting into cold sweats at the sound of a popping balloon (red, of course) and hearing gunfire in the fluttering of insects.

Goodbye Christopher Robin eventually builds some emotional weight – albeit too little too late, and ultimately in service of Hallmark Card messages.

Of more interest (and certainly a little more nuance) are the quiet moments in and around the Milne family home, situated on the edge of Ashdown Forest in south-east England. Simple scenes take on extra significance in the understanding that they play a part in Pooh’s evolution – i.e. occasions around the dinner table with Christopher’s toys, and playing around outside near (and on) giant trees.

Christopher (Will Tilston at age 8, and Alex Lawther at 18) is close to his nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald, who looks like a twin sister of the Australian comedian Celia Pacquola) but not to his mother Daphne (Margot Robbie). The screenwriters imply her coldness towards him arose from disappointment that she had not given birth to a girl, a resentment they suggest she never got over.

Goodbye Christopher Robin eventually builds some emotional weight – albeit too little too late, and ultimately in service of Hallmark Card messages – when an older Christopher comes to resent his father for using him as a PR tool. He became a celebrity and was subsequently bullied at school. At the core of this is a grievance that something private, shared between him and pa, was made public.

Initially the message of the film, through its mixing of war and post-war timelines, appears to be: behind every beautiful thing there is some kind of pain. That message evolves and matures, into a reflection of art regarded as wonderful by many creating – or at least exacerbating – sadness, heavy hearts and deep-seated rifts, in those closest to its genesis. All of this borne of the simple, but tainted beauty in a parent and child spending time together.

Goodbye Christopher Robin could even be read as a counter to Cats in the Cradle. Father and son shared plenty of good times together, and yet, in a strange sort of way, this bond became the core of their problems – or so the film supposes. There are powerful ideas and emotions here, at times communicated effectively – but always with a chewy sweetness that cheapens them. This is a bizarro world where every sin is forgiven and every wound healed.

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2 responses to “Goodbye Christopher Robin movie review: emotional biopic cheapened by chewy sweetness and candy-coated aesthetic

  1. I remember being taken to C.R. Milne’s bookstore in Dartmouth – Harbour Bookshop – in January 1977 – but having been forewarned that C.J. was shy (?) did my best to ignore the then – to me – elderly chap (though only in his latter 50s) who was at the desk.

  2. It is a present-day assumption that all people who experienced combat during the Great War experienced PTSD, yet the reality was that many participants had more varied reactions. Famous British sculptor Henry Moore served in the trenches on the Western Front and sustained a gassing injury yet he later admitted to not feeling any psychological after-effects, saying ‘for me, the war passed in a haze of trying to be a hero’. British actor Charles Laughton also fought in the trenches in 1918 and he stated that, while he found his experiences horrific, he regarded them as positive ones as he felt they strengthened him as a person and made him into an adult.
    This film is not the first in which the script-writers have either invented, altered or exaggerated a particular aspect of an artist’s personality or event in his/her private life and use it as a crux to build a film around. The 1993 film ‘Shadowlands’ portrayed British writer C S Lewis as sheltered, naive and emotionally stunted in order to allow the convenient plot device of the more worldly American poet Joy Davidman bringing him out of his isolation and making him a more fully rounded human-being. Which is fine, except in reality, Lewis was a Great War veteran who had probably seen more of the harsher side of life than Davidman ever did.

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