‘You’ve got to do the things you love, with the people you love, because you never know what’s going to happen next’ advises kindly nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to her six year old charge Christopher Robin Milne (Will Tilston). It’s a nice sentiment, albeit one that doesn’t often apply to Goodbye Christopher Robin itself, a period piece biopic that follows most of the expected beats, but with such charm (and occasional bite) that it’s hard to begrudge it its lack of originality. Not as cuddly as the trailers made out, it’s still a sweet and accessible slice of family entertainment.
Simon Curtis’s film details the story of the creation of the ever-beloved Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), a story that, if you’re unfamiliar with it, you’d assume was entirely quaint. A bear and his friends cavorting around English woodland hardly seems the production of a torturous creative process, but Curtis and writers Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan make it clear that Pooh was born out of Britain’s national cry for help following World War 1. Moving to the countryside after his PTSD makes the noise of the city impossible, Milne finds peace and seclusion. As his attempts to write an anti-war book prove fruitless, the poems he writes for his son Christopher, based on his adventures with his stuffed animals, take the world by storm.
These delightful tales of an idealised little boy and his friendly menagerie ended up being just the balm that Britain needed, but this service to the country came at great cost to the real child. Called Billy Moon by his parents and nanny, he had to adjust his identity to ‘Christopher Robin’ for his adoring public, conducting countless interviews and public appearances. It would be a lot to ask of anyone, but for a little boy, it was crushing.
Tilston is a phenomenal find in the role. It’s the first time he’s ever acted, but he’s as naturalistic as a seasoned pro, adorable, believable, and tremendously affecting. The film’s success really does hinge on this performance, a huge testament to Tilston, Curtis, and the casting team. Gleeson does good work as the buttoned-up Milne, whose response to society’s unempathetic, stiff-upper-lip view of his wartime experience has been to shut off his emotion. Unfortunately, Margot Robbie is utterly wasted as his dreadful wife Daphne. She’s a one-dimensional horror of a wife, mother, and employer, and an attempt to give her a redemptive moment at the conclusion falls flat.
There’s little to surprise in the writing of Goodbye Christopher Robin, but Curtis does conjure some imagery more memorable than this genre usually manages. The first war flashback is filled with inspired touches, and during one play session between father and son, we’re invited in on their shared imagination of a winter wonderland in the woods, with monster tracks and snow falling upwards. It’s a really lovely scene, and the contrast of our bearing witness to this gentle moment and the public devouring of the Milne private life is striking.
Everything is wrapped up rather too neatly in the end in a conversation between Milne and a now-adult Christopher (Alex Lawther), but that isn’t too much of a problem in a film that is decidedly for the whole family to enjoy. It’s a lot of fun seeing the Pooh stories we’re now so familiar with coming to life, and as an insight into how celebrity can destroy lives, it has a lot to say. It might not exactly break many boundaries, but it’s a comfortable, Sunday-night-on-BBC style watch with a truly exceptional child lead.