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Non-Review Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin

Goodbye Christopher Robin is largely a container for a set of impressive performances.

The most memorable aspects of this biopic are the three leading performances; Domhnall Gleeson as the writer himself, Margot Robbie as Daphne de Sélincourt and Kelly MacDonald as the nanny Olive. This triumvirate elevates the material to hand, fleshing out an overly broad and overly sentimental script through their ability to underplay moments. Gleeson, Robbie and MacDonald communicate their characters effectively through meaningful glances as much as overloaded dialogue.

Bear with me.

In some ways, Goodbye Christopher Robin suffers from a surplus of ambition. Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan, the film casts a very wide net, hoping to encapsulate decades in the lives of these characters. The result is that many of the film’s emotional arcs and beats feel truncated in the move to the next important event, which in turn leads the movie to amp up the sentimentality for maximum impact. There are moments where Goodbye Christopher Robin works perfectly, but there are more moments where it seems to fumble.

Goodbye Christopher Robin tries to cover too much ground. “That bear swallowed us whole,” Milne reflects towards the end of the story, but there is a sense that the script poses just as much danger.

“If we could sell these stories, we’d by Milne-aires.”

Goodbye Christopher Robin works best in its smaller moments, when it is tightly focused on something very immediate and very relatable. The film’s middle section is particular effective, a meditation on Christopher Robin Milne as the world’s first child superstar, a figure of the public imagination cynically leveraged by his parents to sell books based on a fictionalised version of his childhood.

The arc is fairly predictable, as young “Billy Moon” struggles to distinguish between what is real and what is fake, between his own life and the life of the fictional character carrying his name. However, the simplicity of this central arc allows Goodbye Christopher Robin to play with the disconnect created by fame, through the innocent eyes of a child. As the title implies, Goodbye Christopher Robin is the story of how A.A. Milne mined his child’s life as inspiration for the popular Winnie the Pooh books.

Stick with it.

At one point, the young boy objects to being given a copy of the famous “Winnie the Pooh” bear, insisting that this stuffed bear is somehow less “real” than the teddy bear that traditionally stands in for the imaginary character. At another point, a late birthday phone call takes a very bitter last-minute twist, as ordinary family living becomes a grotesque public pantomime. Goodbye Christopher Robin teases out a simulacrum of familial affection, wondering how a child could be expected to navigate the blurred lines between public fiction, private imagination and family life.

This simplicity also provides a solid framework for the central performers. Margot Robbie is the mother resentful of her child, keen to capitalise on his popularity for her own ends. (“Are you my manager?” Christopher asks at one point, one of those jokes that is funny because it is mostly true.) Domhnall Gleeson is the father willfully blind to what is happening. Kelly MacDonald is the concerned nanny who is also the only adult with Christopher’s best interests at heart.

A.A. for effort.

Goodbye Christopher Robin would be a much better film if it maintained a tighter focus on this central section. Instead, the film is bookended by an extended introduction and a stretched epilogue. This has a negative impact on the film in a number of ways. Most obviously, there is not enough space to do justice to all of these dangling plot threads and character beats. In fact, A.A. Milne spends most of the first act talking about a book that is only fleetingly mentioned in the end notes before the closing credits.

Goodbye Christopher Robin spends twenty minutes building to the point where A.A. Milne and his son invent the One-Hundred Acre Wood together, time that is largely unnecessary and redundant. Similarly, Goodbye Christopher Robin devotes its final act to the later years of their relationship in a way that feels like it glosses over any number of important plot beats. In order to cover all of this ground in the one-hour-and-fifty minute runtime, Goodbye Christopher Robin finds itself relying on shorthand that isn’t always effective.

A boy and his bear.

This is most obvious in the sequence that largely bookends the film. The opening scene of Goodbye Christopher Robin feels almost like a parody of a prestige picture; lots of shots of awards-caliber actors in old age make-up exchanging meaningful glances in the British countryside, eventually speaking only syllables to one another, but syllables that seem to carry the weight of the world. There are several points in Goodbye Christopher Robin where important plot and character beats are edited into montages or glossed over completely.

This somewhat clipped approach to narrative and setting feels reductive. Much of Goodbye Christopher Robin unfolds in a weird magical realm between the real world and somewhere more ethereal. These sequences are very effective, suggesting the boundless possibility of a child’s imagination, and the joy of being allowed to share in that. There is something deeply affecting about the extended scenes in which A.A. Milne and Christopher Robin wander through their shared fantasy, something very effectively undercut in the later fame-driven scenes.

Family portrait.

However, even the more grounded scenes take on a fantastical air. Goodbye Christopher Robin seems to unfold in a theme park version of Great Britain. Perhaps the most effective encapsulation of this twee aesthetic is a sequence of two characters carrying cups and saucers of tea down a platform on an old-time rail way station, almost as if the film were daring itself to find the most mid-twentieth-century British imagery imaginable.

There is a sense that more than just a sense of real place has been lost in this rush. In particular, Margot Robbie is given a thankless task, forced to play Daphne de Sélincourt as a collection of “bad mother” stereotypes. Robbie is very good, suggesting some deep-seated sense of resentment and detachment beneath her cynical exterior. However, the character never feels fully formed, never much more than a collection of unfortunate clichés assembled in broad strokes.

A feather in his cap.

The same is arguably true of A.A. Milne himself. As much as Goodbye Christopher Robin simplifies de Sélincourt to render her a villain, the script simplifies Milne in order to preserve his integrity. Milne is an oblivious father figure, one who seems to completely miss what his work has done to his son. In some ways, Goodbye Christopher Robin seems to let Milne off the hook for monetising his son’s fantasies, by casting de Sélincourt as such a ruthless cynic. At the same, Gleeson digs deep and finds a raw humanity beneath a distant exterior.

There are moments when Goodbye Christopher Robin works beautifully, when it perfectly calculates the right amount of emotional pressure to apply in a given moment; a seemingly throwaway line from a given character, a concerned look in a tense situation, a hesitation that lasts just long enough. It helps that Will Tilston, playing the young Christopher Robin, seems almost scientifically engineered to be heartwrenchingly cute.

Drawn to the story.

Goodbye Christopher Robin works very well as a package for a set of impressive central performances and powerful emotional moments. The only problem is that these elements tend to get overcrowded in the rush to craft as complete a story as possible. The One-Hundred Acre Wood feels too small to contain everything towards which this movie aspires, which leads to a sense that the best bits of the film are often crowded out.

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