Friday, October 27, 2017

Goodbye Christopher Robin: Farewell, this film

Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG, for fleeting but graphic war images

By Derrick Bang

Brief portions of this biographical drama are endearing: precisely what fans may have imagined, when wondering how Winnie the Pooh was created.

To the complete surprise of his parents (Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie), their son
Christopher (Will Tilston) is furious when confronted with a toy shop's massive cache of
stuffed bears in the likeness of his bear. The notion that the public soon will be able to
own such faux copies is more than the boy can stand.
Alas, the rest feels like character assassination, akin to the hatchet job done on Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks.

One must be wary of film biographies that are “inspired” by actual events, since this often is code for exaggeration and “made-up stuff.” Scripters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan have succumbed to this temptation, in one case rather egregiously (apparently in service of “dramatic tension”).

Such embellishment can be excused when little is known about the subject(s) in question, but Boyce and Vaughan had much from which to draw: Alan Alexander Milne’s numerous essays, along with Ann Thwaite’s sterling biography; and — most particularly — Christopher Robin Milne’s own memoirs, The Enchanted Places, The Path Through the Trees and Hollow on the Hill.

Director Simon Curtis’ film certainly looks and feels authentic. Production designer David Roger has done a masterful job of recreating the sparkle and sophistication of 1920s London, along with the rustic, cozy and sun-dappled East Sussex countryside that A.A. Milne found so comforting.

Curtis even used actual locations, most crucially “Pooh Bridge” and Ashdown Forest, the wilderness adjacent to Cotchford Farm, where Milne’s son — Christopher Robin, who went by the nickname “Billy Moon” — spent his childhood. (The actual Cotchford Farm still stands, but was unsuitable for filming; a similar property nearby was used for exterior shooting.)

The problem is that this film’s tone is relentlessly dreary, even mean-spirited. Milne’s wife Daphne is portrayed as a cold-hearted, mercilessly self-centered monster: an interpretation that Margot Robbie nails all too well. We hate her on sight, and our opinion only lowers with time. Daphne lacks even a whiff of motherly instinct, having apparently lost interest in her child when he turned out to be a boy, rather than the girl she wanted.

Nor did she abandon that hope gracefully, insisting that her son be garbed in smocks and dresses throughout his childhood.

That detail is accurate enough, and not unusual for the era. But there’s a world of difference between detached and disengaged parenting — which was typical of the British upper class, at the time — and this depiction of Daphne as a spiteful, sharp-tongued shrew who cares only for consorting with her aristocratic friends. (And, if this film is to be believed, who also cheated on her husband.)

At least Milne (Domhnall Gleason), known to his friends and family as “Blue,” has a reason for his withdrawn aloofness; he’s a shell-shocked survivor of WWI trench warfare, which has left deep psychological scars (which, in a further indictment of this version of Daphne, she brusquely dismisses and disregards).

Gleeson is just right as Milne: equally credible as a mildly reluctant bon vivant (at Daphne’s behest), a creatively blocked writer, and a war survivor wary of anything that might prompt battlefield flashbacks. Gleeson delivers the British reserve that regards the display of feelings as weakness; as a result, we rejoice when Milne relaxes, smiles, and actually enjoys himself.

Gleeson also is persuasively terrified, when Milne is overwhelmed by said flashbacks: a shift that frightens those in his vicinity.

Following a brief prologue that leaves us in suspenseful uncertainly, Curtis flashes back two decades and begins the story with an economical and dazzling segue from Milne’s battlefield horrors to his post-war return to civilized society, and his playwriting career. But such pursuits now seem trivial, in the face of what England has lost; he determines to eschew fancy in favor of writing a book “to end war for all time.”

Daphne, meanwhile, gives birth to their son, Christopher. Milne moves the family from bustling London to Cotchford, where he hopes the peaceful surroundings will be more conducive to writing.

The family unit is augmented by Olive (Kelly Macdonald), the nanny hired to raise Christopher; he grows up calling her Nou. She’s the hero of this piece: a perceptive woman who senses that, perhaps more than most children, Christopher needs his parents’ attention. Olive does her best to compensate, and Macdonald’s warmth is this story’s major saving grace; encouragement and whole-hearted love sound even more endearing, when delivered via her Scottish accent.

Macdonald remains under-appreciated on these shores: a terrific actress who debuted in 1996’s Trainspotting, and then made definitive marks in the TV miniseries State of Play, and films such as Gosford Park, Finding Neverland and The Girl in the Café.

The film’s true treasure, however, is first-time actor Will Tilston: absolutely adorable as 8-year-old Christopher Robin. I cannot imagine a more perfect young actor for the role; he’s every inch the personification of the imaginative and endearingly innocent little boy. Tilston also projects kindness and sensitivity; he’s the only person acutely attuned to his father’s “spells.”

Enduring this boy’s frequently crestfallen expression, at numerous disappointments, is heartbreaking: distress relieved only by Tilston’s radiant smile and enthusiastic eyes, when Christopher is happy about something. His speech is child-natural, just like a precocious kid who chooses his words carefully, as if wanting to make a precisely proper point.

The story’s warmest segment comes midway, when father and son are left to fend for themselves for a few weeks: the magical fortnight where Milne (finally!) allows himself to see and know Christopher, and the moment when the boy’s imaginative adventures with his ubiquitous stuffed teddy bear spark a fresh literary note. The immediate result is the poem “Vespers,” first published in Vanity Fair in January 1923, and which becomes an immediate sensation.

Convinced that he’s onto something with more commercial potential than a stuffy pacifist screed, Milne summons his friend Ernest (Stephen Campbell Moore), a skilled illustrator. The two men follow Christopher into nearby Ashdown Forest, Ernest rapidly sketching and Milne taking notes, as the boy makes up activities with his bear and numerous other stuffed animals.

Moore’s cheerfully sensitive handling of Ernest — better known today as E.H. Shepard — is another welcome note of compassion in a narrative too frequently dominated by gloom. (It should be noted, however, that this film’s scripters have greatly embellished the pre-Pooh relationship between these two men.)

The resulting book of children’s verse, When We Were Very Young, is a smash success when published in 1924. Suddenly, young Christopher’s live is no longer his own ... because (with apologies to Pinocchio) he is a real boy, and Milne unwisely didn’t change his son’s name for published.

This is the crux of Curtis’ film, and yes: a terrific dramatic hook on which to hang the evolution of a fascinating character dynamic. (As the adult Christopher later wrote, in one of his memoirs, “It seemed to me almost that my father had got to where he was, by climbing upon my infant shoulders, [and] that he had filched from me my good name, and had left me with the empty fame of being his son.”)

Unfortunately, the crushing impact of Robbie’s tone-deaf Daphne overpowers the delicacy of young Christopher’s gradual realization that his personal childhood — and his bear — have become public property. The imbalance is so bad that, when the timeline returns to the events briefly depicted in the prologue, and then moves on, there’s no way to accept Daphne’s behavior: She simply has no right to the emotions Robbie is required to display. The scene is wholly false.

This third act also is abrupt and rushed, Christopher’s transition from 8 to 18 (now played, far less convincingly, by Alex Lawther) feeling more like afterthought than narrative necessity. Granted, these later events are essential to the story, but surely Boyce and Vaughan could have handled them better.

Their script also is oddly vague with respect to the actual number of books in which Milne “filched” his son’s childhood. For the record, in addition to the aforementioned When We Were Very Young: Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), Now We Are Six (1927) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928).

Frankly, fans are far better off re-reading one or more of those soothing classics, in order to preserve fond memories of Christopher Robin, and the (obviously) gentle man who so perceptively put childhood innocence on the printed page. At best, Goodbye Christopher Robin will tarnish such impressions; at worst, it’ll destroy them utterly.

And who needs that?

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