When you attend enough press events, you learn to recognize the difference between a staged moment and something real, and those real moments that sneak through all the carefully arranged pomp and circumstance are the ones worth noting.
The Los Angeles premiere for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was absolutely insane, and I went with a good friend of mine. There were several different auditoriums being used, so when people exited the film to make their way over to the party, you didn’t all start in the same place. We had to walk down a wide staircase outside the Kodak Theater, and the entire staircase had been set up so fans could stand behind velvet ropes and watch all of us exit down this massive red carpet. People were taking pictures, screaming for the stars, trying to get autographs. It was madness and chaos, and in the midst of it, we found ourselves walking behind Domhnall Gleeson. Fans were already freaking out over him, and we heard screams of “HUX! HUX!” as he walked down the stairs.
At one point, he stopped for what must have been the third or fourth time to sign pictures, and as we stopped (there was no way to get around the logjam), I noticed his father, renowned character actor Brendan Gleeson, standing about 10 feet away. He was watching Domhnall as he dealt with the fans, and he was watching the crowds, and the look on his face as he took it all in was one of such simple, naked pleasure that it sort of knocked me back a step. It wasn’t about the fame or the crowd or anything like that; it was the look of a father seeing his child come into his own, and it was a look of satisfaction. It was beautiful, and it was powerful because of how unguarded it was.
Knowing that he has such strong paternal support makes it more interesting to see how Domhnall has picked several projects that have such richly written material about the bonds between fathers and sons. Several years ago, he starred in About Time, a film in which he learned that he shared a special gift with the other men in his family. Bill Nighy played his father, and the material was handled in a surprising manner. What was sold as a romantic comedy about time travel turned out to be a devastating story about how our choices not only affect us, but also the people we love. Now, with the true story GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN, Gleeson is examining a different father-son relationship, this one illuminating the darker truth behind one of the most beloved children’s properties of all time.
There is a reason the Winnie the Pooh stories have endured the way they have over time. They remain some of the most delightful, gentle, thoughtful children’s stories ever told, and they capture the power of childhood imagination in a way that is damn near magic. There was a time where we accepted that stories like these were meant to serve in part as moral fables, and the emotional complexity of what A. A. Milne wrote is unexpected. The Pooh stories aren’t so much about offering simple-to-comprehend morals as they are about painting the world in certain colors. There’s a sadness shot through the stories that becomes more pronounced the older you are when you read them, but there is also such joy that the sorrow simply feels like texture.
Yet, despite growing up reading those original stories and despite reading them to my own children, it never occurred to me to question how A. A. Milne’s real-life son would have felt about having those stories and characters shared with the world. And, to be honest, it never occurred to me to wonder just how famous the stories were when first released. By the time I was introduced to the characters, it was because they were the property of Walt Disney Pictures, which is what led me backwards to the books. I still think 1977’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is one of Disney’s most entertaining and rewatchable movies, full of terrific vocal performances and beautiful animation, and part of the magic of it is the way the book becomes a sort of character in the film, with the characters interacting with the actual text, with words and letters being blown away on a blustery day. That was so entertaining to me when I was very young because it made me aware that you could break the reality of a story in that way.
Part of the enduring charm is that the private world of Christopher Robin looks so beautiful, so filled with friends and adventures, and one of the hardest things about watching Goodbye Christopher Robin is realizing that there was a real little boy whose real dreams and adventures were ruined for him even as they enchanted the world. The film begins with Alan Milne (Gleeson) freshly back from World War I. Like many of the men who fought in that war, he is haunted by what he saw, and he’s determined to write something that will make a difference. He wants to write something that will convince people to never go to war again, which is a radical shift from the pithy, featherweight plays for which he was known before the war. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) loves the life that is afforded to them by his writing and his reputation as a sharp-tongued wag who’s great at parties. The change in Milne is startling, and his PTSD makes almost every detail of his daily life unendurable.
Daphne ends up pregnant, and one of the things I found most interesting in the film is the way it refuses to make parenting into some instant, easy, magical thing. Milne isn’t allowed into the delivery room, and Daphne is embarrassed by her own display of pain during the birth. They expected a girl, but instead get a tiny baby boy. Daphne’s already got so many clothes that they just roll with it. They name him Christopher Robin Milne, but almost from the start, they call him Billy. They hire a nanny for him, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), and Daphne throws herself right back into the social life that she knew before she was pregnant. They continue to go to parties and the theater and on trips, and Billy (Will Tilston) stays at home with Olive. They spend so little time with him that when Milne decides that he wants to live in the countryside, away from everything that Daphne knows and loves, Billie is shocked to learn that he’ll be living in the same house as them.
There was definitely a time when parents spent less time intimately involved in the lives of their children, particularly parents of a certain class or status, and it’s clear that Olive is the one who has the most profound relationship with Billy Moon (so named because he can’t pronounce “Milne” when he starts talking) at first. It’s only when Olive has to temporarily step away from the family that Milne finds himself forced to spend time with his son. He becomes drawn into Billy Moon’s rich inner life, and he suddenly finds himself writing again, and as soon as that work is released to the public, there’s a clear hunger for more of it.
It’s easy for me to understand that allure. By far, one of the things that has brought me the most joy as a writer has been the Film Nerd 2.0 series that I started during my time at HitFix, and which has since expanded into two books, with a third on the way. There’s real value in having a conversation about the way we share media with our kids and what they learn from what they ingest. Watching this film, though, gave me an acute panic attack over the possibility that my own kids will one day come to resent me packaging and sharing their childhoods, no matter what the intent. The success that Milne finds is akin to the phenomenon around the Harry Potter books, and everyone wants a piece of the “real” Christopher Robin. It’s a harrowing whirlwind of media attention and public demand and financial obligation, as the Milnes are catapulted into a whole different level of success.
Both Margot Robbie and Kelly Macdonald do nuanced, emotional work here, and again… I was surprised how nimbly the film avoided the sentimental traps that I expected from it. Daphne Milne is never played as a particularly demonstrative parent, and there’s a chill that she maintains that is explained as part of the aftermath of the war. It resonated with me as a very honest if brittle emotional reaction, and Robbie displays no vanity playing Daphne’s ugliest moments. Macdonald is playing the other end of the spectrum, nurturing and patient and kind, and it’s a thankless part in many ways. She’s there to underscore the distance that the Milnes all maintain. By far, though, the lion’s share of the work falls on Gleeson, who has to ride out some pretty tricky emotional territory. He’s great here, and the material becomes wrenching once he starts to realize how deeply he’s failing his son.
Tech credits are solid gold here. Carter Burwell’s score walks his usual careful line between indication and support, and Ben Smithard’s photography goes a long way towards selling the natural magic of the forests around the Milne home. There’s a sense of restraint and taste to everything, from the period detail to the way the film’s biggest emotional punches are thrown. The earlier features by director Simon Curtis both struck me as solid but unremarkable, and this feels like the best film he’s made yet. This is the most interesting script he’s shot so far, and the film doesn’t feel like the easy, feel-good version of this story that you’d expect from Hollywood. These people make mistakes, and there is anger, and nothing about the resolution is easy or clean.
Overall, Goodbye Christopher Robin is often devastating, and it offers up one of the least sentimental portraits of parenthood that I can remember. It all comes down to a man and his tiny son, walking together in the woods, one of them broken and filled with pain and fear, the other too young to know those things yet, his love and imagination both plentiful enough to restore his father. The father may have given the son life, but the son is the one who is actively saving the father’s life by this point.
Goodbye Christopher Robin explores how something that pure can be ruined by commerce, and instead of presenting the creation of Winnie the Pooh as a purely good thing, it is wise enough to suggest that art comes at a cost, and the creation of even the most beautiful things can sometimes leave scars.
Running time: 107 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic