Quick Take: Goodbye Christopher Robin is a wonderfully atmospheric costume drama that tells it’s story in stages. In places it fails to have the actors dig too far beneath the surface of the people but, despite this shortfall, it illuminates Alan Milne’s psychological troubles in insightfully relevant context.
It’s a bittersweet glimpse into a dysfunctional family dynamic. Each parent, for vastly different reasons, purposefully distances from themselves emotionally – an often physically – from their son.
It’s a touching look at the how the creation of Winnie the Pooh saved one man’s sanity, and taught him how to connect with his son but not how to protect and maintain that connection. It’s a portrayal of how the very thing that revived a sense of hope in a world in crisis essentially tainted and all but stole away young boy’s childhood.
Goodbye Christopher Robin answers almost as many questions as it deliberately leaves unexplored, but you don’t walk out filling unfilled.
The Details: I don’t know a single person who doesn’t have a favorite character in the Thousand Acre Woods or memory involving a Winnie the Pooh. There are few childhood characters, other than Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, with as long and as enduring a legacy. The location choices, vistas and woodland moments in Goodbye Christopher Robin, bring the world springing to life in such a way you can practically see the magical world of Pooh. The costuming and score encapsulate the period amazingly well and made it easy to slip right into this story and stay rooted in time.
Goodbye Christopher Robin starts with a bird’s eye view of author A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) life beginning as he’s trying to reintegrate into society and reconcile his changed worldview after his time on the front lines of war. He is a comedy writer having difficulty retaining his humor or finding meaning in a post-World War I world.
The on-screen relationship between Alan and Daphne (Margot Robbie) illustrates the disconnect between both those who served and those left behind. It stands as a soft lensed commentary highlighting the silent demand that soldiers “sally forth” and simply carry on once they’ve returned home. They have a marriage that leaves little emotional room for focusing on anyone but each other. It’s clear they love each other – and their sone – but it’s just as obvious that love is in not unconditional.
The story drops in first showing the cause of Alan’s increasing disenchantment as well as the physical impediments complicating his inability to deal with living in London society.
Domhnall’s version of Alan Milne is that of a man mostly detached from both the world around him and himself. You don’t know much about who Milne was prior to fighting in World War I, but this performance brings his damaged psyche into focus and makes watching his efforts to navigate his issues and bond with his on all the more compelling. He feels out of step and just is emotionally fragile. You don’t know whether to laugh with him, empathize with him, or give him a hard shake as the movie progresses and his selfishness and arrogance, obliviousness hardens into a barrier that rocks the foundation of his relationship with his young son.
Daphne comes across at turns as frivolous, devoted and loving, self-centered, oblivious, entitled and beneath it all emotionally damaged. Watching how she lives in order to protect herself from feeling pain or suffering is at turns triggers sadness, frustration, and outright anger. She’s a hard woman to like even once you realize why she often behaves as she does towards both her husband and child.
Margot Robbie’s performance is wonderfully vivacious and refined yet emotionally restrained. Without belaboring the point or overdoing it, she conveys the dual nature of many women living in the aftermath of the Great War and working through their own struggles with the price of war. She winsomely embodies a creature of her social strata and time.
Goodbye Christopher Robin relies on the audience to make some presumptions about the time, societal temperament and attitudes as the characters thankfully do more showing than telling when it comes to the emotional motives driving these people. There are, however, bridge characters who say the things that need saying to keep up story momentum and move the plot forward. Most frequently these pivotal moments revolved around the changes happening in Christopher’s longest, deepest, and most vital relationship with his nanny Olive played by Kelly Macdonald. The relationship between Christopher Robin and his nanny neatly demonstrates the detachment many parents of means maintained in their household when it came to childrearing. The love and affection present between the two casts a stark light on the ever-increasing distance that exists between the boy and his parents. Macdonald inhabits this space with the grace and skill that’s a hallmark of her acting style. Without over-emoting or shifting the focus from the main story arc, her performance is full of subtle digs that make it obvious that there are far more issues at play in these severely uneven familial relationships than the audience is given. Her warmth, care, and unintentional role in the creation of the world of Winnie the Pooh are more than a bit of relief from the otherwise mostly frigid environment it seems this family inhabits when left alone in close quarters.
As the film turns to how playing “pretend” with his son and bringing the world of Winne the Pooh to life with his son Christopher Robin, you see how what starts out as a coping mechanism for his PTSD becomes something far richer and beautiful as their relationship deepens through this play. The evolution of his relationship with his son is constantly juxtaposed to the relationship between nanny and child. This visual switching back and forth of the two interactions makes watching how his parents ultimately choose to act, and the position it puts Olive, in all the more poignant.
Alan and Daphne Milne live the high life after the book releases to massive international success. Christopher Robin is thrust into the role of an icon and becomes a pop culture phenomenon. His life after the release of the book is no longer his own and his relationship with his father is forever changed. These moments are uncomfortable to watch because between his being exploited for gain at every turn and neglected and essentially betrayed by his parents
Her role and the choices forced upon her in the third act are what bring events to a head and force at least Alan to recognize the untenable position and lonely world his son’s been left to live in but unfortunately it doesn’t lead to the deeper look into the motives and emotions at play among the family going forward.
Unfortunately, just as you reach the moment when the film makes its turn and all the changes happening in people’s lives open the door to really spend time on Christopher’s side of the story, there’s a large forward jump in time and the moment is lost.
This choice lessens the overall impact of the finale of the movie because there are so many subtle storylines and relationship building blocks that were only lightly touched or kept almost too peripheral despite being formative moments that the emotional depth in this family dynamic feels more than a little off. I get the English are a reserved people, but these moments didn’t feel restrained, the felt like they were missing something.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is an engaging look at the emotional and psychological connection between an author and his work. I came away with a deeper appreciation of the history of Winnie the Pooh and his maker. But, as a biopic about this author’s relationship with his son, it emotionally skims along in shallow waters.
Overall Rating: 3 out of 5
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