Goodbye Christopher Robin: Unbearable, by David Bax
With Goodbye Christopher Robin, director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn, Woman in Gold) continues his tradition of making handsome, sturdy movies with a dearth of subtext. It’s not that the film is a disaster; the cast, for instance, provide numerous strong performances. No, the problem is that Curtis is so averse to surprises, the finished feature feels like a redundant stretching out of the trailer.
Domhnall Gleeson plays A.A. Milne, the British author and World War I veteran who created Winnie the Pooh. After returning from the war, Milne moves his doting son Christopher (Will Tilston) and reluctant party gal wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) out to the country because the constant din of London is playing hell with his PTSD-stricken mind. There, he and young Christopher invent a modest but wondrous world filled with lovable animals. When Milne turns that private fantasy into a worldwide literary phenomenon, though, it ruptures his and his son’s lives, perhaps irreparably.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is at its most powerful in the scenes, mostly relegated to the first half, dealing directly with post-traumatic stress. The depictions may be overly simplistic—Milne freezes and retreats into his mind at any loud noise or bright light—but these episodes are sufficiently harrowing to count as respectful to the severity of the affliction. In his most inspired visual stroke–a battlefield trench glimpsed just on the other side of a ballroom’s doors in London–Curtis takes us back into Milne’s war by suggesting he’s never really left it. The surreal dreaminess of the scene informs the movie’s other major highlight, the two weeks Milne and son spend bonding in the countryside while Daphne goes back to London to shop and cavort. The two let their imaginations run wild and Curtis obliges them. If they decide to pretend it’s winter, the fields and trees are suddenly covered in pillowy, gathering snow. It’s no less beautiful for how literal it is.
Unfortunately, these are the last scenes of Goodbye Christopher Robin that actually work. Once Milne starts writing and publishing the books, he becomes consumed by their (and subsequently his) popularity. More dreadfully, he is blithely willing to parade young Christopher around, peddling him as the real life hero of the stories and essentially selling out his own son’s childhood. Everything we’ve been shown and told about Milne, by the screenplay and by Gleeson’s performance, made his time in the woods bonding with Christopher and dreaming up stories perfectly sensible and satisfying. But Curtis and screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan fail to offer motivation for Milne’s later heedless behavior.
Instead, the filmmakers cruelly make Daphne the scapegoat, painting her as a shallow social climber with Milne often positioned as little more than her passive accessory. With that facile explanation out of the way, Goodbye Christopher Robin is free to indulge in the mythologizing hokum that’s irresistible to these kinds of middlebrow great-man biopics. When we aren’t being treated to scenes that boil down to, “And that’s how they came up with THIS thing!”, we’re instead asked to swallow Seabiscuit-style drivel about how Winnie the Pooh saved post-World War I England.
There’s a tragic story of a father and son here but Curtis apparently finds it too messy to commit to. Like so much of the hoary, prestige moviemaking that floods cinemas in the fall, Goodbye Christopher Robin is too sure-footed to be truly moving.