Thursday, October 26, 2017

Review: "Goodbye Christopher Robin"

If you go into "Goodbye Christopher Robin" expecting, as I did, to see a heartwarming portrait of the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh and how his own family life helped him conjure that whimsical world, you may be a little shocked by the actual film you see. It's more challenging than expected, but ultimately much more rewarding, too.

Directed by Simon Curtis from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, "Goodbye" is a portrait of a remarkable family, but a dysfunctional one. It's a melancholy story of how parents can love their children but not always do the right thing by them, even as the outside world looks upon their circumstances as enviable -- even wondrous.

This is the tale of the darkness behind the magic.

Domhnall Gleeson plays author A.A. Milne, a decent man ravaged by the horrors of the World War I trenches. Known as Blue to family and friends, he's a typical upper-crust British husband and father, kindly but emotionally distant.

Once the family decamps London for a quiet farm in Sussex, everyone knows not to make loud noises, which trigger fits we now call PTSD, or disturb Blue while he's writing. Problem is, he's not writing. A successful playwright of light comedies before the war, he comes to find himself dissatisfied with this type of work. And he struggles to find a kind that does. Even his notion of a treatise on ending all wars lies fallow.

Margot Robbie plays his wife, Daphne, and this is neither the typical loving mother or shrewish harpy we're used to seeing in the movies. She enjoys the high life of London, but sacrifices her own joy for Blue's need for solitude. She loves their only son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston) -- known to them as Billy Moon -- with all her heart, but happily shunts most of the day-to-day duties of mothering to the diligent nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

(Billy calls her Lou... clearly, this clan loves nicknames.)

Circumstances force Blue and Billy to be alone with each other for a long period of time. They take long walks in the gorgeous forest, play games, have adventures, and slowly draw closer as father and son. Building on the voices Daphne gave to Billy's favorite stuffed animals, Blue starts to create stories to go with them, centered on a kindly teddy bear who acts as a sort of little brother.

Blue enlists illustrator Ernest (E.H.) Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore), a friend and fellow shell-shocked veteran, to come visit them and start doodling pictures to go along with the words. He includes Billy as a character in the stories, but gives him a false name, which is actually his real name, to draw some distance. For his own part, Billy Moon is a little trepidatious about being portrayed as Christopher Robin.

"If I'm in a book, people might think I'm not real," he says.

Winnie-the-Pooh becomes an international success virtually overnight, surprising everyone. There is joy and pride, but Blue also finds himself strangely resentful of his own son, who becomes an instant celebrity. People adore Christopher Robin as the ideal of childhood innocence, and can't distinguish him from the flesh-and-blood boy, Billy. Meanwhile, the writer stands in his own creation's shadow.

Before long Billy's quiet life in the country has turned into a litany of interviews, public appearances and being recognized wherever they go. Olive tries to warn Blue about the dangerous waters they're drifting into, but Daphne resents the intrusion of someone she sees as merely a servant.

Billy's childhood is happy, but growing up proves to be a much sterner proposition.

"Goodbye Christopher Robin" is a gorgeous film, with dappled sunlight streaming through trees, vivid colors and crisp details. (Ben Smithard was director of photography.) Decked out in beautiful tweed suits (by Odile Dicks-Mireaux) -- even while playing cricket -- Blue is the artist who relates better to his characters than the people they're based upon.

Gleeson is an interesting physical specimen, who can seem awkward and ungainly, or very handsome and masculine, depending on the performance and costumes/makeup. The Robbie character gets shunted to the side somewhat, but that's a reflection of a home life that was much more stilted than presented to the public.

Tilston, with his impossible dimples, is terrific as a little boy dealing with issues and emotions no one his age should have to. Alex Lawther takes over the role of Billy as he gets older, bringing new, less merry notes to the character.

Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin are beloved creations that have stood the test of time for nearly a century. But they are just that: figments based on reality, not representing it.

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