Wednesday 13 November 2019

Goodbye Christopher Robin review: 'Competently made, entertaining, with a strong performance from Domhnall Gleeson'

Biopic explores the unexpected misery caused by a much-loved kids' story, says Paul Whitington

Teddy bears’ picnic: Domhnall Gleeson as AA Milne watches his son Christopher Robin playing with his stuffed toys
Teddy bears’ picnic: Domhnall Gleeson as AA Milne watches his son Christopher Robin playing with his stuffed toys
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Christopher Robin Milne has grown so encrusted with Disney glitter over the years that it's almost impossible to think of him as a real boy, with real problems. Turns out he had plenty of them, and most stemmed from the creation of Winnie The Pooh.

Based on the letters and memoirs of AA Milne and his son, Simon Curtis and Frank Cotrell-Joyce's film explores the strange fact that the hugely successful children's stories were a kind of curse for all who helped create them.

Goodbye Christopher Robin got a massively cranky going over in a certain left-leaning English newspaper a few days back, but is competently made, entertaining, and features a strong performance from Domhnall Gleeson. He is AA Milne, the prolific English writer who, before the Great War, had delighted London society with his witty plays and sparkling essays. But his experiences in the trenches have transformed him, and he's no longer inclined towards skits and frippery.

At a dinner party given in his honour, Milne has the bad manners to bring up the war. His friends and colleagues use terms like "bad show" to describe the carnage at battles like Ypres and the Somme, Milne is no longer prepared to pretend that the war never happened, and decides to leave London for the peace and quiet of a Sussex cottage.

This is bad news for his society wife Daphne de Selincourt (a badly cast Margot Robbie... more on that later), who dreads the thought of a life away from the bright lights, with nothing to distract her from the trials of motherhood. The couple's son, Christopher, or "Billy Moon" as they've always called him, is now five, and has always struggled to conquer his mother's interference. She'd wanted a girl and the boy has been forced to wear the smocks she'd prematurely purchased. His preoccupied, shell-shocked father isn't much better, and the child's only source of emotional security is his live-in nanny, Olive (an excellent Kelly Macdonald), who smothers him in the uncritical love he clearly craves and otherwise lacks.

Daphne soon tires of the country life and when Olive is called away to tend to her dying mother, Billy Moon (Alex Lawther) is left alone with his moody and emotionally catatonic father. AA Milne is hopelessly grappling with an idea for an anti-war treatise and to escape his writer's block, takes his son for walks in the nearby woods.

Billy has a menage of stuffed toys that includes a donkey, a piglet, a tiger and a threadbare teddy. To amuse the boy, Milne renames the bear Winnie and begins making up stories about him. Realising he's on to something, Milne summons his friend EH Shepard, an illustrator, who begins drawing sketches of the animals and the boy.

Crucially, Milne decides to include a fictionalised version of his son in the Winnie The Pooh stories. Almost overnight, the stories turn into bestsellers, and 'Christopher Robin' becomes an international celebrity. Thrust into the spotlight, the boy is forced to answer thousands of fan letters, attend fan lunches and perform and sing for adoring crowds. He comes to detest the Pooh stories, which he feels have cheapened his childhood by making it public, but his distracted father only realises the damage that's been done when it's far too late. And Pooh will also bite his creator on the bottom, obliterating Milne's reputation as an adult author.

Simon Curtis's film is bland to look at, handsomely but antiseptically photographed. But the story - a good one - is decently told and Gleeson is very convincing as the stilted and traumatised Milne, whose ridiculous emotional reserve would not have been untypical of a man of his generation, nationality and class.

Australian actress Robbie is not right as his cold wife, however - her looks seem at odds with her demeanour and her accent veers wildly between antique regality and a 21st century Thames Estuary drawl. But it's impossible not to feel pity for the real Christopher Robin, who would never be able to escape the pudgy shadow of that cursed bear.

Goodbye Christopher Robin (PG, 107mins) 3*

Also out this week: Movie reviews: Home Again, Daphne, Brimstone 

Films coming soon...

Blade Runner 2049 (Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright); The Mountain Between Us (Idris Elba, Kate Winslet); The Glass Castle (Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Sarah Snook); Return To Montauk (Stellan Skarsgard, Nina Hoss).

Irish Independent

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