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.

Ex Machina

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Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland’s much anticipated debut behind the camera is an inventive sci-fi tale of the multifaceted dangers of technology’s rampant progress and the potential for our own annihilation at its expense. Ex Machina (2015) is a cerebral chamber piece, and conclusive proof that the genre requires little in the way of big budget effects if the central narrative is strong enough. And in this case, Garland’s screenplay provides more than ample food for thought.

The film opens with the briefest of set-ups: a medium-rung programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is shown winning a coveted prize to spend a week with his mysterious employer, a genius in the field of artificial intelligence. Flown by helicopter to a remote location, he learns from Nathan (Oscar Isaac) that he will participate in a Turing test on his latest creation, the alluring Ava (Alicia Vikander). Each day Caleb interacts with her in a new session designed to explore her consciousness through the degree to which she can process ideas and initiate independent thought. Caleb is naturally in awe of Nathan’s creation and of Ava as a wilful individual to whom he’s unable to remain neutral. But is there another, more decisive factor motivating Nathan and his decision to allow Caleb into his inner sanctum?

Gleeson, who was excellent in the recent Frank (2014), does a wonderful job of expressing Caleb’s awe and wonder combined with an instinct for the darker potentialities lurking in the margins. The fact that he pulls it off with a convincing American accent adds further merit to his performance. Isaac continues his impressive recent run, and though he’s never been the type of magnetic, commanding actor you might have picked for this role, his ease in adopting Nathan’s strangely laid-back demeanour is convincing enough. Vikander too shines in a role that requires subtlety to reflect the human spark of inspiration behind the robotic heart of her true identity.

In his skilful manipulation of this three-hander, Garland leaves the motivations of each open to speculation. As the week inside the sterile facility progresses, the layers of division are stripped away and re-built, leaving us blissfully unsure of who, ultimately, is holding the upper hand. The drama and intrigue build wonderfully to a gloriously ironic crescendo, in which Garland is able to fuse his narrative skills with a genuine cinematic flair, not so surprising from a writer who has collaborated so often with a director as boldly visual as Danny Boyle. The denouement is magnificent, coming after a memorable final set-piece in which the rug is very effectively pulled out from under us.