FATHER-son relationships are, by their very nature, intense. Add post-traumatic stress disorder and the corrosive effects of celebrity culture to the mix and you’ve got the makings of a gripping emotional drama.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is the bittersweet story behind the creation of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, which were inspired by A.A. Milne’s own son.
The tale begins, somewhat conventionally, with a telegram being delivered to Alan and Daphne Milne (Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie) at their home in Sussex at some point during WWII.
Their son, Christopher Milne (Alex Lawther), is Missing In Action.
From here, an awkward edit catapults viewers back to the trenches of WWI, where Milne Sr is knee deep in mud and rotting corpses.
Another jarring flash forward then propels Milne into a post-war London drawing room where his beautiful wife rescues him with a waltz.
It might not be subtle but director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) makes his case with impressive narrative economy.
After the war to end all wars, A.A. Milne, already a celebrated playwright, suffers from the debilitating effects of shell shock as well as writer’s block.
Unable to live and work in London, he moves his reluctant wife to Sussex where their son Christopher is born.
A nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), is employed to take care of the young boy while the Milnes holiday in Europe or party in London.
Their blue-blooded, British style of absent parenting – on an emotional as well as physical level – borders on neglect.
Forgetting that Olive has been granted leave to visit her ailing mother, Daphne departs abruptly for London with no specified return date.
Forced to spend time, alone, in his son’s company, the distant father begins to establish a genuine bond with young Christopher (Will Tilston).
Being privy to his imaginative eight-year-old’s private world not only heals the older man, it also inspires him.
When Milne writes about their adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood with Christopher’s colourful collection of stuffed toys, the books have the same magical effect on his readers.
Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin become more popular than anyone imagined and the young boy is thrust into the limelight in a manner that feels surprisingly relevant to contemporary audiences.
Christopher’s private world has suddenly become very public. Everybody wants a piece of him.
His ambitious mother embraces the advantages of fame and fortune – Robbie does a decent job of conveying the funny, charismatic side to what is essentially an unsympathetic character.
Gleeson is solid, too, as the stitched-up author. While his character is either too spineless or too artistically self-absorbed to protect his young son, the performance suggests he is at least wrestling with his flaws and inadequacies.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is a dark, surprisingly bleak behind-the-scenes account of one of the best-known characters in British literature.
Only the film’s warm-fuzzy coda makes a concession to fans.
Goodbye Christopher Robin opens on Thursday.
Goodbye Christopher Robin
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald.
Director: Simon Curtis
Verdict: 3.5 stars