Like most people in the UK, I grew up absorbing the Winnie the Pooh stories from A.A Milne. From reading the books to watching the Disney versions of the stories, I’ve grown up with Winnie the Pooh and have fond memories of each version. However, I never considered the life of A.A Milne or the real Christopher Robin Milne when I was exposed to Winnie the Pooh, which made this film about their lives fascinating to me, and until I saw this film I never realised how difficult it must have been for the real Christopher Robin Milne.The film follows A.A Milne who, following his service in World War 1 and the birth of his son Christopher Robin Milne (who is known as Billy Moon to his family), moves his family and their nanny out of London and into the Sussex woods so that he can have the peace he needs to write an anti-war work. During a period when the nanny, Olive, has to leave for a few days A.A Milne finds himself getting attached to his son, to whom he was a bit distant beforehand, finding that his time with Christopher alleviated his feelings of PTSD, with Milne deciding to use Christopher as the inspiration for a series of books based around the toys Christopher had, which became the Winnie the Pooh series. When the books become a sensation which created difficulties for the personal life of Christopher. Now the film does a good job firstly at conveying the PTSD that A.A Milne faced during the events of the film, with his PTSD being triggered by almost everything from potting balloons to the sound of bees. We get an understanding of the trauma that Milne and other soldiers who fought in World War 1 must have experienced and this lets you understand why Milne needing to both leave London and throw himself into Winnie the Pooh to provide some sense of happiness in his life. The meat of the film though is with the portrayal of Christopher Robin Milne. From the start it doesn’t feel as if his parents truly care about him, leaving him with Olive for long periods of time whilst they go on holiday, to the point where Christopher is amazed that, when they move to Sussex, he’ll be in the same house as his parents. Through the way the film is framed, we see how his imagination thrived, which shows how Milne was inspired to write the Winnie the Pooh stories. What really works though is how the film shows what the impact of Winnie the Pooh was like for Christopher. In the second half of the film we see how Christopher’s childhood was commoditized and exploited, with the real person being overlooked. Everything that happened to Christopher was to service Winnie the Pooh rather than Christopher, with him being forced to do constant interviews and personal appearances as the character of Christopher Robin rather than the real person known as Billy Moon, even a personal phone call between Christopher and his dad was exploited and aired on the radio rather than being kept a private event. Everything about Christopher’s life was exploited, denying him the chance of a real childhood following the publishing of the Winnie the Pooh books and it’s devastating to see the lengths Christopher will go to in order to distance himself from the legacy of Winnie the Pooh.
The performances are uniformly excellent from the cast. Domhnall Gleeson is excellent as A.A Milne, doing a great job at conveying the PTSD that the character suffers from and how easily it can be triggered, along with the emotional outbursts that it creates in him. In the scenes with Christopher when the two are playing, we see a more open side to Milne, someone who probably would have been a great dad if he wasn’t willing to exploit his sons childhood, and when this realisation hits Milne, Gleeson brilliantly conveys the guilt that Milne feels. On the surface, Margot Robbie as Daphne, Milne’s wife, is a bit of a one dimensional character, putting her own happiness above the needs of her husband and son at a time when they need all the support they can get, Robbie playing the character as really cruel when the film focuses on how she exploits Christopher. But under this there’s a bit of tragedy to the character, unwilling to love Christopher at first as she doesn’t want to experience the loss she felt when A.A Milne was fighting in World War 1, along with showing how the class status she desires has ill prepared her for real life, being completely unprepared for the pain of childbirth and being embarrassed by it as a result, it’s a fine line to walk with this character but Robbie makes it work. On a more heartwarming side, we get Kelly Macdonald as Olive, Christopher’s nanny, who is pretty much the only person, at first, who truly cares for Christopher, understanding how much stress everything related to Winnie the Pooh is putting him through and empathising with him along with being willing to call out his parents on their attitudes, whilst also showing how the character wants a life outside of her work with Christopher. The main actors who make the film work though are Will Tilston and Alex Lawther as Christopher Robin Milne. As the younger Christopher, Tilston is great at showing the imagination of the character, which is necessary for showing how his ideas became the basis for Winnie the Pooh. What Tilston shows brilliantly though is the stress of being the character of Christopher Robin rather than the real person, how people want to be with him but not know him and how everything in his life is exploited so it’s no longer his, even his toys no longer belonging to him. This is carried through with Alex Lawther as the older Christopher, his resentment towards A.A Milne and everything related to Winnie the Pooh coming through brilliantly, showing just how much damage was done to Christopher through Winnie the Pooh and how difficult it was for Christopher to reconcile with Milne.
On a technical level, the film is impressive. Director Simon Curtis and DP Ben Smithard make great use of the real Sussex forest that inspired the Hundred Acre Wood, framing it in such a way as to highlight the beauty of the environment and showing how it fuelled the imagination of A.A Milne and Christopher, with this working well with the script from Frank Cottrell-Boyce (who is such a perfect fit for this story). The sound design and the editing meanwhile highlight Milne’s PTSD, the jump cuts from scenes in the Sussex forest to Milne’s experience in World War 1 being effective, along with the highlighting of certain sounds to show how easily PTSD can be triggered.
Overall, I found Goodbye Christopher Robin to be a really powerful look at both the damage done by PTSD and the impact of a childhood being commodified and sold to the world. I didn’t know the extent to which these issues plagued the Milne family but these are issues that were bound to come up for these people and the film does a respectful job at exploring them.
My Rating: 4.5/5