An emotional, if uneven biopic.
By a certain age, everyone knows the story of Winnie-the-Pooh and all the characters who make up the fictional Hundred Acre Wood. But most people may go their whole lives without learning the real, messy truth behind the creation of that story, including the struggling British writer who wrote it down on the page and the imaginative young boy who brought it to life in the first place. Goodbye Christopher Robin sets out to tell that story in stark, often charming, and at times, even downright depressing fashion.
That’s the nature of the beast when it comes to this particular story, though, which introduces audiences to the inner lives of Winnie-the-Pooh writer A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), and their son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston & Alex Lawther), whom they often call “Billy Moon,” in lieu of his actual birth name. And it’s during Milne’s time playing with his son in the woods where he first comes up with the idea for Winnie-the-Pooh, and later watches as it becomes the most successful children’s book series in the world at the time.
But while that might seem like a cause for celebration on the surface, it ends up tearing Christopher away from his parents, both of whom are quick to throw their son into the public spotlight in order to further promote Winnie-the-Pooh’s success. This leads to the film’s unique structure, as Goodbye Christopher Robin follows the Milne family from when Christopher is a child to when he is a rebellious young man.
Like with his previous directorial outings, director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold, My Week with Marilyn) brings a storybook quality to Goodbye Christopher Robin that fits aesthetically with its story. But that style can also feel inauthentic, such as when the film dives deeper into some of the darkness at the heart of the Milne family. Curtis’ style works best during the film’s flashback sequences, beginning with Milne’s return home from the first World War as a broken man suffering from undiagnosed PTSD.
At the start of the film, his wife, Daphne, insists that he must try to look for the good in things, rather than letting the horrors of his military service further infect his life. So the two have a child together in order to try and bring a physical manifestation of hope back into their lives. Unfortunately, it becomes increasingly clear that neither are necessarily meant to be parents, as they quickly resort to letting Christopher be taken care of day and night by their in-house nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald). Through their time together, Olive develops a strong and kind connection with Christopher, which provides the film with the emotional backbone that it desperately needs in its second half.
That latter portion of the film is significantly darker than anything that had come before it, and as a grownup Christopher holds both of his parents accountable for their actions when he was a child, the film has a hard time finding the right kind of thematically satisfying resolution. That’s mostly because it does such a good job at illustrating Daphne and A.A.’s shortcomings as parents, but also because of how little it does to make the love they feel for their son (particularly Daphne’s) feel anything other than occasionally convenient and phony most of the time.
It’s wise then that Goodbye Christopher Robin relies so heavily on the talents of Gleeson and Robbie — two of the most talented young actors working today — to bring further dimension and emotion to their roles. Gleeson is given more to do and is able to turn A.A. into an understandable figure throughout the film, even when Gleeson’s youth makes some of the sequences during Milne’s elderly years hard to believe. Robbie does a similarly good job as Daphne, although the script gives her very little to actually do, in addition to the Aussie actress having to struggle with maintaining a strained, posh English accent.
But surprisingly, the two best performances in the film come from Kelly Macdonald as Olive and Will Tilston as the young Christopher Robin, the latter of whom delivers an impressive debut here. Macdonald and Tilston’s scenes together are not only the most emotional that the film has to offer, but they’re often written to perfection, without going too far into sentimental territory while never shying away from the inherent love and affection the characters have for each other.