Understatement is a quintessential British trait, but it must be used cautiously. When employed in a wise, calculated manner, it can allow a movie to convey a story, its characters and their relationships with special lucidity, so that restraint becomes a source of insight and perhaps of irony. But when understatement takes over a film, the result may become circumscribed, its emotional and dramatic narrowness making it shallow as well. This is indeed what happens in “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” a film by British director Simon Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn,” “Woman in Gold”).
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“Goodbye Christopher Robin” focuses on Alan Alexander Milne, better known as A. A. Milne. As the author of “Winnie-the-Pooh” and two collections of children’s verse, Milne needs no introduction as he joins the long list of culture heroes who have already become movie characters. He also wrote plays, novels and works of non-fiction for adults (all of which are left virtually unmentioned in the movie). Among other things, Milne published a 1922 thriller, “The Red House Mystery,” which was a formative work in the genre’s history. But he is remembered mostly as a children’s author. The characters he invented for his young readers have become an iconic part of the human imagination, and their blend of charm, innocence and sophistication has not diminished with time.
Curtis’ film begins when Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) returns from World War I, having taken part in some grueling battles and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Daphne (Margot Robbie), his elegant wife, isn’t very interested in her husband’s distress. She wants to pick up their life together where it had been when the war began, and rejoin the London literary elite, where Milne’s theatrical successes have already secured him a place. She is angry when he behaves in a disruptive manner at social gatherings, reminiscing about the war or expressing his new pacifist beliefs (which Milne voiced in a 1934 book, “Peace with Honour”).
Milne, who jumps out of his skin whenever a balloon pops or a window is smashed, can’t just pick up where he left off. The complacency of his London circle is off-putting to him, and he feels certain that another world war is coming. After the birth of a son in 1920 – an event that also seems not to make much of an impression on chilly Daphne, who for some reason is disappointed that the baby isn’t a girl – he decides, over his wife’s objections, to move to a secluded estate in the country. After a few years of pastoral living, Daphne has had enough: she moves back to London, leaving Milne to care for their son, with whom he has not formed much of an emotional connection.
The child’s official name is Christopher Robin, but his parents call him Billy Moon. The difference between his given name and the nickname is central to his characterization, and also to the story Curtis tells in the movie. Until his mother leaves and he and his father finally bond, young Billy (the round-cheeked, impressively dimpled Will Tilston) grows up in a cold and alienated household; his only warm connection is with his nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), who functions as a surrogate parent.
One major flaw in “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is the way it portrays the Milnes’ treatment of their son before the change brought about by Daphne’s departure. Gleeson’s Milne is so restrained that his performance seems monotonous, and his inability to see that his sunny, smiling child is unhappy seems more puzzling than understandable. Robbie’s Daphne is even more alienated and alienating, since the movie makes no attempt at all to understand her. She is an utterly unsympathetic character, ambitious, materialistic and selfish, and the few moments when she expresses some maternal sentiment seem incongruous. Nor does “Goodbye Christopher Robin” give us any insight into the couple’s relationship: If there are romantic feelings between them, they are so concealed by understatement as to become undetectable. Given Gleeson and Robbie’s roles, it is not surprising that Macdonald’s winning performance is practically the only source of warmth and emotion in the film.
In telling the story of Milne and his son, Curtis’ movie explores the theme of innocence and its loss, but does so in a schematic, superficial way. Father and son begin to bond as they walk through the woods around their country house, with Billy tightly gripping his favorite teddy bear, soon to be joined by other stuffed animals – a donkey, a tiger, a kangaroo, a piglet – who will become the heroes of Milne’s books. As they walk, they make up stories – Billy, it should be noted, seems to have a far more active imagination than his shell-shocked father – which Milne then writes down, and the illustrations for them come from his friend, E.H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore), the only person in the film who understands what kind of state Milne is in. Naming the bear “Winnie,” incidentally, was Billy’s idea, after he and his father saw a black bear that was brought to the London Zoo from Winnipeg.
Milne’s books and poems for children intended to restore some measure of innocence to postwar England. That innocence, however, is lost again when the “Winnie-the-Pooh” books – with a hero that bears Billy’s real name, Christopher Robin – become an international sensation. Not only Milne, but Billy, too, find themselves the objects of passionate adulation. The publicity efforts drive Billy away from his parents – Milne may even envy his son for becoming the bigger celebrity – and leave him feeling exploited. All he wanted, after all, was to be close to his father.
At some point, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” becomes a cautionary tale for parents, warning them not to use their children to advance their personal agendas. According to the movie, Billy suffers abuse at school because of his delicate, girl-like looks and his fame. The psychological damage he suffers continues when he is an adult (played by Alex Lawther). While the movie presents its warning subtly – it is, in the end, a feel-good picture that does not wish to undermine the sympathy we feel for the world that Milne and his son created – there are clear indications in it that Billy struggled throughout his life as a result of his parents’ mistakes.
Because Milne’s bond with his son is presented in such a hesitant manner, however, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” does not really dig into the problem of parental exploitation. Ultimately, we do not come to understand Milne in any depth, and other than showing us how his most famous work came into being and what its consequences were, the movie adds little to his legacy. The humdrum direction likewise hampers the result, making it an uninspired work – not a word you could ever use to describe what A. A. Milne and his son created.