There are any number of minefields into which “Goodbye Christopher Robin” might easily have wandered — it’s a fall-release biopic set in England between the wars, about the creation of a beloved classic of children’s literature — but the film emerges mostly unscathed as neither a hagiography nor a hatchet job on A.A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh.
Or at least the co-creator: The film posits that Milne’s young son assembled the characters (from his collection of stuffed animals) and wandered with them through the nearby woods while dad, in a rare spate of attentiveness, took a lot of notes. While Milne’s skill as a writer gets its due in “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” his parenting skills, along with those of his wife, are subject to what appears to be appropriate criticism.
A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) — those close to him call him “Blue” — returns from World War I a changed man; still suffering from PTSD after his battlefield experiences, he’s of little mind to return to the witty, breezy comedies he used to write before going to the frontlines.
Over the objections of his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), Blue decides to move the whole family — including infant son Christopher Robin, whom everyone calls “Billy Moon,” and his devoted nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) — to the Sussex country side. Blue’s goal is to write a searing book about the horrors of combat, in the hopes that the War to End All Wars could be precisely that.
As Daphne makes Billy Moon less lonely by giving him a series of toys that would soon be world-famous, Blue struggles both with prose and his ongoing post-war mental state. When his wife heads to London for an extended stay and Olive takes a few days off, Blue finds himself having to tend to young Billy Moon (Will Tilston), who proves to be good company; when the buzzing of bees reminds Blue of bullets flying, it’s Billy who calms him down and assures him that they won’t sting so long as they’re unprovoked.
Screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce (“Millions”) and Simon Vaughan tread fairly lightly on the I-saw-it-then-I-wrote-it moments that so often plague biopics of authors, although we do see the various facets of the Milnes’ lives that found their way into print. (Vaughan, it’s worth noting, previously wrote “A Bear Named Winnie,” about the real-life Winnipeg animal who wound up in the London Zoo, where Billy Moon would later see him.)
Up to this point, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” fits in neatly with such tweedy, mumsy tales as “Miss Potter” and “Finding Neverland,” all crumpets and waistcoats and literary achievement. But director Simon Curtis (“Woman in Gold”) digs in a little deeper, understanding that what happens after the publication of the “Pooh” stories is just as interesting.
When the world falls in love with Christopher Robin, as he is called in the books, the Milnes are only all to happy to sacrifice their son on the altar of publicity, sending him out on public appearances and radio interviews, even putting him in the genuine danger of posing for a picture next to Winnie at the zoo. Nanny Olive seems to be the only person who objects to the child’s exploitation, and we see Billy Moon submit himself to it to make his parents happy, even though his father pays much less attention to him now that he’s no longer using him as a subject for his work.
This is a very handsomely mounted period piece, the kind where it almost never rains in England, which is one of the cinema’s two biggest lies. (The other one is that it always rains in Los Angeles.) But for the rolling hills and charming cottages and smart flapper dresses, we still see the lead characters commit genuinely despicable acts, and so “Goodbye Christopher Robin” should be commended for doing so, even though it crams in some third-act contrition so that everyone can leave the theater on a cloud of happy thoughts about Tigger and Rabbit.
Gleeson and especially Robbie excel at capturing these interesting, flawed characters; their motivations seem clear whether doing the right thing by each other and their child or even some very wrong things. (Many young performers would no doubt turn down a role like Daphne, who is so frequently unsympathetic; Robbie’s relish in playing her shows her to be more interested in being a serious actress than in merely being liked.) Macdonald shines as well, giving dimension and grit to a character who could have easily been a mere paragon of goodness.
Young Tilston, with his big eyes and bowl haircut, avoids gooiness; his Billy Moon feels like a real kid, both dreamy and down-to-earth. And in just a few scenes, Alex Lawther (“Freak Show”), as the teenage Christopher Robin, communicates just how crappy it must have been to attend British boarding school when everyone mocks you as a former kid-lit star.
No one’s going to accuse “Goodbye Christopher Robin” of subtlety or of rewriting the biopic rules, but it does dare to go darker than most films like it. And while it won’t lessen our enjoyment of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and the rest to know that their author wasn’t a perfect father, it’s fitting that the little boy who loved them first gets his moment in the spotlight.