The stories of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood are amongst the foundation stones of children’s literature. Written in the 1920s by British playwright A.A. Milne, they were inspired by his son Christopher and his collection of toys, and became an instant international success, thrusting Milne and his family into the spotlight. The repercussions of this become the basis for ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’, the latest biopic from director Simon Curtis.
Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) returns from the First World War a shaken man, and in an attempt to find some peace, he relocates his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), his young son Christopher, who they call Billy Moon (Will Tilston), and Billy’s nurse Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to the countryside. The relationship between the couple and their son are consistently estranged, but Alan and Billy find a connection by playing in the nearby woods with Billy’s collection of toys, and from their games emerges the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. However, rather than making Alan a celebrity, the books make Billy one instead, and that precious moment between father and son begins to shatter as the rest of the world begins to take ownership over Billy’s childhood.
The problem with most biopics of the last few years has been that the stories they try to tell just aren’t detailed or interesting enough to warrant cinematic dramatisation. In the case of ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ though, it turns out to be the opposite. As a piece of material, the story of Alan and Billy offers an affecting narrative with complex character relationships, and asks genuine questions about the nature of childhood, the relationship between parents and children, and the cost that comes with artistic expression. Like ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Peter Pan’, Winnie-the-Pooh had an enormous and detrimental impact on the life of the child that inspired it, and this lends the narrative a lot more weight than the usual literary biopic.
The film itself just isn’t anywhere near as good as the story it’s telling. The screenplay from Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan has moments of sharpness and punch, but mostly relies on emotional clichés, all the more frustrating when the material doesn’t support them. Curtis’ direction is messy and unfocused, so that when the film finds its footing at points, it very soon starts to slip again. There’s no consistency in the visual language, imaginative or creative flairs grating against the hand-held documentary immediacy of the rest of the film. The editing denies the film of a consistent rhythm, making it feel longer than it actually is, and the cinematography suffers from the lack of directorial focus. ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ moves too fast or too slow where it shouldn’t, misses the emotional punches it can’t afford to, and when it stumbles into the darker material, quickly jumps away as if to protect it from being too heavy for the casual audience it clearly wants to attract.
The performances don’t suffer too dramatically, with Gleeson, Tilston and Macdonald giving strong performances. Unfortunately, neither the screenwriters nor director seem to know how to handle Daphne, alternating between making her the loving mother and antagonist without any rhythm or reason. As such, Margot Robbie’s performance also feels pulled in all directions, making it hard to know how to connect with her. This is hardly Robbie’s fault though, as it is obvious no one knows what purpose Daphne is supposed to serve in the narrative in the first place.
The film itself just isn’t anywhere near as good as the story it’s telling.
That said, there was still something about ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ that haunted me. There’s a palpable sense of melancholy throughout the film (helped by Carter Burwell’s excellent score), and amongst the mess are moments of astute observation that sting you in the right way. It could have been darker, but it still does more than most generic biopics would, and its emotional restraint prevent it from employing the kind of emotional blackmail that made films like ‘Finding Neverland’ (2004) or ‘The Danish Girl’ (2015) so turgid. I also find the stories of these children that inspired the great classics of children’s literature fascinating and very moving, so I may have already been predisposed to connect with the story the film was trying to tell.
Ultimately, ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ never leaves the impression it clearly intends to, mostly because it doesn’t seem to know exactly what kind of impression it wants to leave in the first place. While this isn’t the best version of this story we could have gotten, it probably isn’t the worst. At least the moving and heartbreaking story behind the literary classic is able to somehow rise above the lacklustre filmmaking, enough that it kept me engaged for the length of the film. It’s a pity though, because stronger and more imaginative filmmakers could have made this something really special. Instead, while certainly not the kind Wikipedia biopic we get most of the time, ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ is still a sorely missed opportunity.