There are some things you may want to consider before seeing the totally charming and ultimately sad new drama from director Simon Curtis, Goodbye Christopher Robin. If you’re not overly familiar with the A.A. Milne stories of Winnie-The-Pooh, look them up. At least, give yourself a quick overview of the characters. It helps.
But more importantly, go online and search for the 1922 poem Vespers. It’s easy to find, there are plenty of sites. It was later included in a set of poems published in A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, but within the film there’s a presumption of knowledge, which is fine for British audiences who may even know it as a lullaby, but elsewhere, some audiences may feel left out. It’s not that being unfamiliar with the poem of a child saying his prayers before going to bed compromises enjoyment, it’s just that it helps further enhance the references in the film and the recognition of moments that inspired the writing.
As most should probably know, the young Christopher Robin of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, the child who lived in the Hundred Acre Wood with his animal friends, was a real child, and so were the woods, though in reality they were five hundred acres located in Ashdown Forest, East Sussex, England. The child was the son of author and playwright A.A. Milne and his socialite mother, Daphne Milne. However, what you probably didn’t know is that neither his parents nor his nanny ever called him that. His name at home was Billy, stretched to Billy Moon because of his mispronunciation of the name Milne. His real name was used only in the books. In fact, as the film shows, whenever anyone called him Christopher Robin, from the boy’s point of view, it was as though they were referring to someone else. As his father would later tell his son when the boy asks why do people call him Christopher Robin, “It’s because it’s your real name, but it’s not who you really are.”
The film begins with the overused television construct of starting events at a dramatic point, then jumping back to an earlier time. It’s 1941. A.A. Milne is already a world famous author, his books of Pooh Bear are already written, and Billy Moon is now a grown man in uniform. The war has ravaged Europe for over two years, though from the idyllic setting of a home in the middle of the country surrounded by woods, you’d never know of the death and destruction occurring on the outside. Not until, that is, a hand-delivered telegram arrives, and the reality of the war and its dreadful consequences are brought right to the doorstep of the parents.
The film then cuts to the First World War where playwright Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is serving as an officer, fighting overseas. The experience is emotionally as well as physically shattering. At the end of the war to end all wars, which clearly didn’t work, upon returning to England, the damaged writer is plagued by memories of his time in the trenches. Anything, like a stab of light to the eyes, the popping of a cork from a bottle of champagne, or a balloon accidentally busting, triggers haunting memories, momentarily sending him back to the Somme. At a social event, the privileged raise their glass to the end of the war and declare “Tinkety Tonk.” It was an expression among the English upper classes that meant, goodbye, something akin to Toodle Pip. For the record, it is said that during the second world war, the Queen Mother used to conclude her personal correspondence with the phrase, Tinkety Tonk Old Fruit, And Down With The Nazis.
Eventually, the film will circle back to that telegram in 1941, but it doesn’t end there. To tell more is a plot-spoiler, but for those who know their literary history, you’ll know that it’s all a screenwriter’s device to hold suspense and nothing more, and it works, even if the event it’s dramatizing is not exactly honest. Hankies may be required.
Goodbye Christopher Robin clearly shows how awful his parents were at parenting. As is often the case with the English privileged class, the real raising of the child was done by the nanny (Kelly Macdonald) whose name was Olive, but was called Nou by Billy, and often written in A.A.Milne’s poems as Alice. She was twenty times the parent than his real parents would ever be. During a dramatic confrontation, when Nou faces the mum and dad and tries to tell them truths about their behavior, the clueless Daphne (Margot Robbie) declares, “I gave birth to him. It nearly killed me,” as though that was the lone qualification required to be considered a mother. “With respect, ma’am,” responds the nanny, “A cow can give birth.”
Sadly, the situation was rarely different when it came to families of the English upper-class, but seen from an outsider’s modern-day perspective, considering how both parents kept their child at arm’s length, you wander why they ever desired children in the first place. It’s sad to see the father’s manner in which he often views his boy as an inconvenience while later using him as a promotional tool for his books – he actually becomes annoyed when the public wants to know more of the child and not of the writer – but his mother’s ignorance and her lack of interest of even being a mother is alarming. During birth where she screams and screams even more, the midwife tells the father not to be concerned at the sounds he hears from the bedroom. “It’s all going swimmingly,” the midwife cheerfully informs him, adding that the silly mother, “… Wasn’t aware of the mechanics.”
There’s fun, however, at witnessing the creativity behind the writing of the stories while observing how the name Winnie was given to Billy’s beloved nursery teddy bear, and why he’s called a Pooh. Plus, the film’s refined scenic designs, the performances of Irish born Gleeson (who must now rank as one of the most chameleon-like performers in films today) and Australian Margot Robbie whose socially prestigious English Received Pronunciation accent of the twenties is as good as you could expect, all adds to a film that looks and sounds tastefully resplendent.
But while the film has a PG rating, and the title has that magical, fantasy ring to it – isn’t Christopher Robin the perfect name for a child whose best friend is a lovable, cuddly teddy bear? – this is not necessarily a film for children. The realities of both the first and the second world wars are not for the young hoping to catch as many glimpses of Pooh Bear, Piglet, and Rabbit as possible. Neither is the sadness that follows, or the treatment of Billy by the other boys when he leaves his home and goes away to school. Plus, Daphne is not just a bad mother, she’s a bad person. During those early days of Billy’s childhood, she leaves the country home for an indefinite period and goes to London to party and drink. When she finally returns and her husband asks if it’s worth asking her where she’s been, she replies, “Oh, goodness me, no. What would be the point?”
If Billy Moon’s story was a present-day telling, he’d be a child actor, thrust in front of the cameras of Hollywood, later promoting the film, doing the talk-show rounds, continually in demand for interviews, publicity shots, guest appearances wherever the cameras were ready to shoot, and everything else that goes with the selling of a product. But it’s the 1920s, and even though the promotional system of films and television was not in place in the way it is now, the demands on the little boy were just as traumatic. Sadly, it ruined a childhood and made those later years of maturing extremely difficult. As a child, he didn’t understand the attention; as an adult, Billy would resent what his father had done to him. Tinkety Tonk Christopher Robin, and take some tissues.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 106 Minutes Overall Rating 8 (out of 10)