** out of ****
(for thematic elements, some bullying, war images, and brief language)
Released: October 27, 2017 limited; November 3 expands
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: Simon Curtis
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Will Tilston, Kelly Macdonald, Stephen Campbell
A beautifully made film, very poorly told.
Such is this tale of Christopher Robin.
Fraught with angst and despair for nearly its entire runtime, Goodbye Christopher Robin most decidedly does not do for Winnie the Pooh what Finding Neverland did for Peter Pan. That film told a sincerely sentimental tale of how J.M Barrie came to create The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. This one is a seriously depressing account of the origins for A.A. Milne’s fictional friends in the 100 Acre Wood.
Goodbye Christopher Robin should have the spirit of Pooh, not the cloud of Eeyore.
A.A. Milne fought in World War I. Haunted by its horrors, he moved his family from aristocratic London to rural England. The celebrated playwright needed to get away from the high society microscope in order to write again. There in the surrounding woods, on ventures with his son Christopher Robin, the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh (and Tigger too) was born.
What should make for a heartwarming tale, even with its necessary shades of conflict and pain, is instead a psychologically taxing one. Gorgeously rendered though it may be, with lush, impeccably crafted filmmaking befitting an Oscar hopeful (there are exquisite shots of the English countryside here), the tone that director Simon Curtis sets is well-intended but grossly miscalculated. He aims to evoke our empathy but only elicits discomfort.
It’s a tale of two halves, both miserable. Act 1 is about a man traumatized by war. Act 2 is of a boy traumatized by fame. Scenes of Pooh muses pop up intermittently but are quickly abandoned, as if from another movie entirely (the kind that people would’ve preferred to see, and are likely expecting to).
The film spends too long on and goes too deep into Milne’s burdened post-war soul, with all of its PTSD triggers. A more redemptive turn could’ve justified that first hour slog, but instead of Pooh offering a salvific power for creator and family, the books’ international popularity spawns an all new hell for the real life link, Christopher Robin, the boy that everyone wants to meet.
His clueless dad and greedy mom, who abdicate their parental responsibilities to whore out their son as a marketing pawn, make it all the more sad, even frustrating. To the extent this telling is true, it’s not dramatized in a worthwhile way.
Domnhall Gleeson and Margot Robbie aren’t effective as the Milne’s either. Gleeson is perpetually gloomy, forcing the anguish, and the script can’t make up its mind if wife Daphne should be a shallow elitist shrill or a loving mother. The shrill ultimately wins out, and Robbie lacks the range for nuance to elevate the one note.
Will Tilston fares much better as Christopher Robin. Though too earnest on occasion, his performance comes from an honest place, not an artificial actor-y one. Kelly Macdonald brings a particularly welcome air of authenticity to the role of the nanny, providing the film’s one true heartbreaking moment, an instinctive expression of raw emotion. It’s the kind of moment that the rest of the film painstakingly strives for, but falsely.
Macdonald and Tilston forge a strong connection. This nurturing relationship, however, remains a marginalized subplot until the final stretch needs it for a punch of conviction. A much more effective film (well, with these actors anyway) would’ve focused on their bond and kept Milne on the periphery as a catalyst, not a protagonist.
Curtis has a keen sense of period aesthetic but overplays the drama; the emotional hand of each scene unfolds with all the cards showing. Joy is fleeting. Dysfunction dominates. Goodbye Christopher Robin isn’t revealing, just demoralizing.