Director: Simon Curtis
Screenplay: Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Simon Vaughan
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston
Runtime: 107 Minutes
The difficult task when adapting the life stories of the authors of beloved children’s book is in treading that fine line of the sentiments of their work without allowing the film to wallow in shallow mawkishness. They cut to the heart of the intentions and backgrounds of the source materials in unexpected and exposing ways, but for every Saving Mr. Banks there’s a Miss Potter. Goodbye Christopher Robin sits somewhere in the middle, with the balancing act of its sentimental heritage look with its more honest sadness and reality mostly succeeding.
A. A. Milne’s (Domhnall Gleeson) children’s story comes as a risk given his previous standing as a playwright, but his handling of PTSD after enduring through the Great War – a conflict which his upper-class companions and socialite wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) would rather move on from and ignore happened – has left him adrift in a country and world he no longer recognises. His retreat into the countryside with his family offers him a reprieve to restore his mental health and connect deeper with his son, Christopher (Will Tilston).
The father/son relationship at the core is where the film hits its stride in a mid-story peak in which the two are left alone at home to bond, and continues after the publication of Winnie-the-Pooh into the story’s more difficult ground. Although fuelled by his son’s imagination, the worldwide hit that the book becomes catapults the young lad into a limelight that his parents unknowingly exploit before the cameras. The ripples that it leaves in young Christopher’s life shake his teenage years, and leads to a point where their tensions are spooled out in a devastating discussion on the eve of the Second World War.
Their chemistry builds the backbone of the drama, which is thankful because newcomer Will Tilston is a revelation in the role, delivering one of the most natural child performances of recent years in a star-making turn that gives Gleeson a real run for his money. Gleeson plays Milne very well, as an upright and unemotional former soldier fighting his own demons in silence, where sternness and play alternate viciously as a father to his only son. Kelly Macdonald brings some warmth as house nanny Olive, whose loyalties become torn as Christopher vies for her attention whenever her parents are not around, but Robbie feels sadly shortchanged in her position as the rather shallow Daphne, leaving the film for large stretches and coming across as emotionally distant and mean-spirited when she is around.
That short weight in the character department falls on the screenplay, which handles the father/son aspects well but fails to mine much more depth from certain roles or historical record, at times too opportune in development or with the components of the fictional story being written. But it does hit the emotional beats where it needs to, especially in the second half where the reality starts to seep into the initial fun of the storybook world that they built for themselves.
Also, Simon Curtis’ direction feels too quaint at moments and stuck in its ways of lighting and sunshine when the darkness starts to rear its head. His work with cinematographer Ben Smithard is occasionally conspicuous with close wide shots and lush landscapes, but the cutting of scenes and the pace is a bit too close to television. The opening scenes make the film feel like its heading in another direction to the style that it eventually settles on and it’s a bit jarring when looking back.
Goodbye Christopher Robin does have its moments; a decent lead in Gleeson, a fantastic find in Tilston, and a relationship that upholds its period values but has a heart and charm to it. It’s warm and occasionally perceptive in its sometimes overwhelming sadness, but it’s the average presentation and mood that keeps it from pulling some more serious weight.