Winnie the Pooh is a household name. Every child, at some point, has seen, heard, or read the stories of the little bear and his friends on their journeys. But where did those stories come from? How did A.A. Milne find the inspiration to write those stories? What about Christopher Robin? Who was that little boy that we all know? Goodbye Christopher Robin tells that story, but it isn’t a story that you can really expect. There is a sort of darkness lying in between the happy stories of the “willy-nilly-silly old bear.”
Goodbye Christopher Robin is full of extraordinary performances. Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, Force Awakens) is quiet and caring but closed all at once. A. A. Milne’s experience in the First World War damaged him, and that is something that this film reminds the viewer in startling ways. Winnie the Pooh was born out of A.A. Milne’s struggle to leave the horrors of the war behind him. A struggle that in one moment brought him closer to and further removed him from his son.
Will Tilston’s Christopher Robin is brilliantly played. Portraying the complexities of joy, love, and imagination mixed with the loss of childhood, abandonment, and privacy is a tall order for an Oscar winner. Will is only 10. His performance is like a passing thunderstorm, quiet at first and then developing into cloudy emotion and thundering anger. It is something worth marveling at, and director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold, My Week with Marilyn) fixes the camera squarely onto a boy that simply is Christopher Robin. Many of those scenes shared with Kelly Macdonald (Boardwalk Empire, Black Mirror), whose Nanny Olive is a kind of Audience Surrogate, saying what the audience is thinking.
Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad) plays Daphne Milne, wife of Domhnall Gleeson’s A.A. Milne and mother of Christopher Robin. Her character, boiled down to her essential bits, serves as a reminder that the time that this story takes place is vastly different than our own. Her interactions with A.A. and Christopher, her treatment of the family nanny, and her brooding fear and nihilism is reflective of a population that has survived the deadliest conflict mankind has known and has not quite recovered yet. She is beautiful but with a bent that lends itself to a type of unfiltered privilege that injects her scenes with a raw kind of discomfort that is hard to miss.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is shot with a somewhat utilitarian baroque style. There aren’t a lot of overtly artistic angles the camera takes but it is ruthless in its examination of its subjects, pulling in close to actor’s faces. It is the film’s writing and the actor’s performances that make this style work. Domhnall is gripping, commanding emotion each time the frame centers on him. Kelly Macdonald’s performance is heartwarming and heartbreaking in the same space. Tilston and Robbie shine similarly, and Alex Lawther’s (Black Mirror, Imitation Game) 18-year-old Christopher Robin is masterfully played. The audio in the film is also a bit unique. Foley and scene sound is just fine, sitting in the comfortable pocket of most films. The dialogue however, is close and intimate. As each character speaks it is as if they are speaking directly into your ear. While this caused a little confusion for me in scenes where a character was a little further away, the result is a movie where not a word is misheard, and in Goodbye Christopher Robin, each word is important.
All of this comes together to tell a story that is, very clearly, focused on the minute. The quiet interaction between father and son, the emotional journey of a veteran looking down on the countryside, the sadness in the face of a nanny deeply invested in a child’s well-being.
It is one thing to make a film about the delicate art of preserving a child’s youth. It is another altogether to illustrate the preservation of a child’s youth as being the tool of that youth’s demise. Goodbye Christopher Robin isn’t just the story of the creation of Winnie the Pooh. It is the story of A. A. Milne, a man who has seen the worst of humanity, finding that humanity in his son. It is the story of a boy who wants nothing more than to spend time with his distant father. It is the story of a mother’s dread that war will always come.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is a delicate glimpse into the family from which one of the world’s most beloved children’s characters was imagined. A film about a man who wanted to remind a recovering world about the joys of childhood, it is a heartfelt and direct look at the innocence of childhood and the consequences of interacting with that innocence. It is an ambitious film, and because of its brilliant execution, beautifully illustrates one of life’s most complicated dilemmas. | Caleb Sawyer