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Hamptons Life

Oct 7, 2017 2:23 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

HIFF Review: 'Goodbye Christopher Robin' Turns Post-War Trauma Into A Comfy Bedtime Story

Domhnall Gleeson and Will Tilston in
Oct 10, 2017 11:02 AM

War is hell, as anyone who fought in one will probably tell you. It leaves scars, both physical and mental. While the turmoils of post-traumatic stress disorder are much more documented now, it was much more restrained and somehow more damaging to those who served in World War I. It led to social dissociation with the world around, and a crippling fear that the bombs going off in the distance would never leave. With all that context, it’s a wonder how A.A. Milne created the world’s most beloved children’s book as a coping mechanism.

“Goodbye Christopher Robin” is the story of the creation of “Winnie the Pooh” and the bittersweet life of Mr. Milne.

A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) has just returned from the trenches and tries to continue his lavish life in the West End of London writing comedic plays and going to parties with his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), and their newborn son C.R. But the gunfire and bombs of war cripple his psyche no matter how many parties he attends. Milne moves to the countryside with his family and their nanny (Kelly Macdonald). While Daphne is concerned the breadwinner is not getting any writing done, A.A. finds himself bonding with his young son, C.R. (Will Tilston), during strolls through the woods with C.R.’s stuffed animals, which he calls Winnie, Tigger and Piglet, in tow. From there, A.A. is inspired to create the stories of Winnie the Pooh and young Christopher Robin, which become popular all around the world. But young C.R. thinks he’s losing his father and his own childhood in the process.

Director Simon Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn”) provides visual flare to make the movie seem almost entirely like a fantasy story itself. Mr. Curtis throws the audience for loops by mixing sudden and very engrossing fantasy and dream sequences into the real character development. One minute has A.A. in the trenches of the war before literally walking into the next scene at a black-tie party. Mr. Curtis and cinematographer Ben Smithard put the audience inside Milne’s head as he transitions from frazzled war veteran to imaginative father. While somewhat jarring at first, the whimsical nature of the story and filmmaking is eventually very winning.

But then Milne finishes writing his book, and the world meets Winnie and Christopher Robin, and then the movie becomes a bit too formulaic. Milne almost fades into the background of his own story as the movie shifts to being about Daphne becoming a stage mom to young C.R., who just wants to have his childhood creations and his father back for himself. The script by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan has enough twee dialogue to not make the movie boring, but it’s hard not to predict the plot points of the movie’s conclusion. It loses its wonder and luster, growing up a bit too fast without any kind of smooth transition.

It’s no knock against the actors. Domhnall Gleeson starts out stern but captures the stress and scars of war that Milne carried. He sticks with that too, even as he’s sucked into the extreme whimsy the movie gives off. He’s also got great chemistry with the adorable newcomer Will Tilston as 8-year-old Christopher Robin. The young Mr. Tilston’s cuteness may come off as something summoned from a Hallmark Card via witchcraft, but his bond with his adult co-stars feels real and his portrayal of lost innocence doesn’t feel forced at all. Ms. Robbie further proves that she’s a born movie star, starting off as Milne’s wild muse and becoming somewhat of an antagonist. She plays up Christopher Robin’s fantasies seemingly as a means to an end, trying to get back to the lush London lifestyle she once had. Kelly Macdonald and her Scottish charm are also winning as young Christopher’s true motherly figure who he can’t let go of, the real soul of the movie.

In the long run, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is a formulaic biopic about a somewhat interesting subject matter. Mr. Curtis tries his hardest to make A.A. Milne’s father-son relationship unique and he half-succeeds. It’s not his fault; it’s simply that Milne’s life walks off into the sunset like the last page in a children’s book. It’s as safe as a bedtime story.

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