Director Simon Curtis has carved his niche in the film industry by specialising in historical dramas and biopics, starting with the lovely My Week with Marilyn and recently The Woman in Gold. This time he’s turned his focus onto A.A. Milne, the writer best known as the creator of Winnie the Pooh, in Goodbye Christopher Robin. The final product is a busy reflection on the grasping nature of celebrity and trauma, and despite some powerhouse performances, is hindered by a overly conventional screenplay.
The film’s non-linear timeline ties three strands together: Milne’s time in the First World War; the short period developing the famous stories with his young son; the family’s experience of World War II. Domhnall Gleeson takes on the role of the author, with young actor Will Tilston taking on the role of his son, Christopher Robin, whose toys would form the characters of the Hundred Acre Wood. As the first stories were published, the character based on his son became a hit all over the world, thrusting little Christopher into a new age of celebrity.
Goodbye Christopher Robin emphasises the clutch of emerging celebrity culture. With the development of more portable cameras, the media could become more intrusive, and the idea that one child could become a icon around the world was still a shock. It feels even more poignant when the actor playing Milne’s son is just ten himself. In order to promote this film, he’s also had to go from obscurity to television and newspaper appearances. It must be incredibly difficult to cope with at times.
Trauma left by the First World War is also a large part of the film alongside the growth of celebrity culture, but the structure seems trapped between them. While it’s all linked, the film has to flash forward large sections in order to get to the main points of both themes, and the screenplay by Frank Cottrell-Boyce (The Railway Man) and Simon Vaughan (Ripper Street) sometimes delivers some clunkers to spell out exactly what it’s trying to say. Much as these people were well-spoken, even in the hands of phenomenal actors like Kelly Macdonald, some of the lines don’t ring true.
Still, the actors do their best to lift the film. Margot Robbie is tasked with a part that is fairly unsympathetic and works hard to lend her humanity, whilst Alex Lawther has a small, but pivotal role, portraying Christopher Robin as a young man. Lawther is best known for playing young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, and here again he shows his star talent. In both roles, he develops tics and visual quirks from the other actors playing the same person, making that change between time and actor completely seamless. He’s one to look out for in the future.
This historical biopic felt similar to Finding Neverland, the 2004 drama about Peter Pan author J.M.Barrie. Both authors are shown to be quite different – Milne is repressed beyond his control, whilst Barrie is far more open – but both are highly imaginative and employ the stories of children in a way that risks the exclusiveness of their childhoods. Both movies also employ cinematic techniques to transport us to imaginary worlds.
Finding Neverland is probably the better film in the comparison, in part because of how simple it is. That simplicity does iron out the creases from the history behind it however, and Goodbye Christopher Robin should be given some praise for how it tries to delve into the darker aspects behind the whimsical tales, in which their creation became a coping mechanism. Yet with so much packed into one film, it does feel quite stretched in attempting to give everything its fair time.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is a thoughtful film that many period drama fans will enjoy. It’s just a shame that it takes too much on its plate at once, and a heavy-handed script becomes a real distraction at times. There’s a commitment there to telling the story in depth, but it’s limited by the way in which they have to traverse so much to really get there. Regardless, the actors do give it their best and its worth seeing for Alex Lawther’s thoughtful, scene-stealing performance.