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.