Goodbye Christopher Robin

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Biopics of any description can only ever be fragmentary, sketchy examinations of their subjects. Painting in broad strokes, as they inevitably do, it’s easy to cast aspersions or draw inferences about the lives of these historical figures whilst avoiding nuance and richness of detail. Does this render them incapable of insight and intelligence? Not necessarily, and in the case of Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017), a portrait of Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne and his son Christopher, there are certainly a handful of genuinely poignant moments in the screenplay by long-time Michael Winterbottom collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan. The most notable of these honestly broach the darkest threads of Milne’s troubled life, including the initial struggles of anonymity, the curse of success and the terrible cost of both on an individual’s relationships.

Director Simon Curtis is no stranger to this realm of storytelling. His debut feature, after a length apprenticeship in TV, was My Week With Marilyn (2011) which focused on a very specific moment in the life and times of Marilyn Monroe. Turning to a key figure in children’s literature of the 20th Century, Curtis has cast his film well, specifically in the case of Domhnall Gleeson as Milne, a man psychologically wounded by war and emotionally distant thereafter. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) is gradually revealed as a frivolous, wretched creature whose attachment to Milne was only ever based on an assumption that he would continue to write and achieve the fame and notoriety that he eventually claimed, thus giving her social opportunities and the promise of a more lavish lifestyle. The arrival of their son Christopher Robin Milne (Wil Tilson and, in late scenes as an 18 year old, Alex Lawther), nicknamed Billy, was more an inconvenient aside than the culmination of a lifelong yearning.

Milne is an awkward parent who can’t relate the innocent child’s perspective of his son but everything changes when he’s thrust into duty during his lowest creative ebb. Having moved away from London to a ramshackle country retreat, he has been abandoned by Daphne, and with Christopher’s nanny Olive (the always superb Kelly Macdonald) called away to be with her ailing father, Milne must actively confront the full scope of his parental duties for the first time. A kind of bonding occurs and utilising his son’s stuffed toys he conjures up a series of adventures for them all in the surrounding woods. The toys become integrated into Milne’s suddenly re-charged creative process and act as the key figures in his stories of Winnie the Pooh, including Tigger, Donkey, Eeyore, Piglet and, of course, their wise human friend, ‘Christopher Robin’.

The score by Carter Burwell is yet another classy contribution from a composer more often associated with the Coen brothers but who never disappoints, delivering music attentively attuned to each project’s needs, whether darkly comic, sensitive or quirky. For Goodbye Christopher Robin he provides a near perfect score. At times it’s openly melodic in a restrained, pastoral English vein; in others, gently probing at the darker edges of Milne’s mental fragility, recollections of war duelling with the harshness and inadequateness of the world he’s returned to. Yet deploying a small orchestral ensemble Burwell always keeps his music in check, never tipping over into overt sentimentality. It’s this masterful control that distinguishes so much of his best work, including his masterpiece Carol (2015), written for Todd Haynes’s extraordinary feast for the senses.

There’s ultimately nothing ground-breaking about Curtis’s film. It follows a formula or template we’ve all subliminally memorised and could recognise in a heartbeat. Accept the ‘facts’ of real lives with a grain of salt, knowing that creative embellishments – outlandish ones even – are part and parcel of how these nostalgic reconstructive dramas are made more palatable, both in their conception and, ultimately, in their re-telling. Goodbye Christopher Robin proves to be a proficient, highly entertaining example, all reservations aside. The performances are strong, eliciting emotional reactions that have truthfulness attached to them in the film’s very best scenes. It may even inspire some to re-examine Milne’s life through his timeless work, not a bad thing at all, if it means finding the child inside of us all once again.

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Legend

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Director Brian Helgeland’s Legend presents a sweeping and entertaining if mostly frivolous recreation of the Kray brothers’ reign of terror on the streets of London in the 60’s. We see the twins, both portrayed by Tom Hardy – in what is a remarkable pair of performances – as possessing a number of contradictory aspects though the overall effect is distancing, not to mention misleading in attempting to roughly humanise men whose criminal endeavours were unconscionably marked by ruthlessness and brutality.

Hardy is the film’s obvious trump card; through it all, he brings an astonishing level of commitment to rendering the brothers with detail that Helgeland’s screenplay, superficially, doesn’t come close to providing. So much of what Hardy brings to these roles won’t be found on the page: the fluid, unpredictable demeanour of the Krays, their physical traits, their inflections of speech. Whilst expanding their influence on the city’s criminal underbelly, Reggie, the brainier of the pair and a ladies man, attempts to win the heart of the winsome Frances (Emily Browning), the younger sister of one of his henchmen. Ronnie on the other hand is openly gay and prone to rashness in his decision making, especially when his sibling isn’t around to keep him centred.

Helgeland has a less spotty record as a screenwriter than as, more recently, a director. His adaptations of heavyweight crime novels L.A. Confidential (1997) and Mystic River (2003) were first rate. But, behind the camera, his Point Blank (1967) remake and directorial debut Payback (1999) proved to be a botch job, whilst the over-the-top, speciously anachronistic A Knight’s Tale (2001) was close to unwatchable. On a positive note, Legend is eminently watchable right from the start even if it’s hard to take seriously. It seems to be have been deliberately crafted to fill some uncomfortable middle ground – neither a gritty, detailed biopic, hard-nosed drama, nor excessive black comedy but rather sitting somewhere uncomfortably in between.

All three aspects are served, though the comedic bent is the far more pervasive. This fact tends to cheapen a film that’s predominantly stripped of meaning without any strict adherence to a framework of intricately detailed facts. A succession of clichéd, generally awful songs from the era also kills the film’s more serious intents. Helgeland has never been a fan of subtlety and rather than sparingly use source music for genuine impact, the drenching effect only dilutes and compromises the excellent score by Carter Burwell.

In what marks a new adult dimension to her career, Browning is luminous as the fatefully betrothed Frances, whilst a strong supporting cast provide the background ensemble with all the necessary muscle, vacuity and believable accents. Yet they’re all subservient to Hardy, naturally enough, an actor whose range knows no bounds whether playing broadly identifiable, homegrown British characters like the Krays or slipping effortlessly into American roles. It’s a shame then that, despite its entertainment value, there hasn’t been a better attempt by Helgeland to provide real insight or psychological depth to his regurgitation of this infamous duo. Thus, Legend (2015), with its frustratingly conflicting tones, is unlikely to be remembered for much else other than as a future reference for Hardy completists.