Goodbye Christopher Robin (PG)

Simon Curtis

WE'RE accustomed to the dramatic notion of success coming at a price – someone losing their family through hard work, or abandoning idealism, or selling their soul to the devil. That price is not, traditionally, paid by a child. Yet that was the case with the fame created by one of the world’s most familiar children’s books: Winnie-the-Pooh. That something that has brought so much pleasure could also bring such anguish is the subject of an odd drama that adds a bitter-sweet taste to nostalgia.

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The film charts the writer AA Milne’s creation of the anthropomorphic teddy bear and his friends, in two books and a series of poems, and the family repercussions when the books became world famous. At the same time, the story is bookended by the two world wars, and concerns the sheer power of heartwarming stories as an antidote to war.

It opens with the conclusion of the First World War. Milne (the ever-busy Domhnall Gleeson, in between stints as a Star Wars villain) has returned from the Somme, suffering with post traumatic stress disorder and deeply disillusioned. The thought of picking up his career as a lauded comic writer, both for the satirical Punch magazine and in the West End, quickly appals him.

He decides to leave London society for a quiet life in the country, where he will write proselytising anti-war prose. Milne arrives at his new house on the edge of Ashdown Forest in Sussex, with his reluctant wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), his eight-year-old young son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston) and the boy’s nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

At this stage we’ve been introduced to an English elite who, Milne’s idealism notwithstanding, are not very sympathetic. He is stiff and rather cold, his wife a flighty society belle who believes that childbirth is where her motherhood ends, the pair so awfully posh that they’re simply awful. The boy is left almost entirely in the hands of the nanny.

If it were to stay in this vein, the film itself would become tiresome. But circumstances lead to Milne having to finally do some parenting. And so he discovers his son’s sweet soul and sense of adventure. As they roam the woods together, inventing stories, the creative writer riffing off the young boy’s natural imagination, Pooh is created between them.

There’s a third cog in the wheel of course, Milne’s friend and illustrator EH Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore), himself a war veteran who, like Milne, is vulnerable to sudden loud bangs that transport him back, in his case, to Passchendaele. In the rural paradise that gives rise to Pooh’s 100 Acre Wood, creativity helps both men move forward.

For the boy, who believes he has been happily in the midst of a private adventure, the appearance of the book and accompanying media frenzy comes as a terrible shock. “I wanted a book for me, not about me,” the poor lad complains, as the world at large wants a piece of "Christopher Robin".

Though Milne can hardly be blamed for seeing a good story when it’s staring him in the face, there’s a real air of exploitation in the profitable but uncomfortable synergy between fact and fiction that destroys the boy’s childhood. The film becomes ever more powerful as father and son attempt to navigate that damage, particularly a few years later, as the Second World War looms.

On the periphery, the female characters present polar opposites: Daphne an appalling mother who is the real "stage parent" in the family; Olive, played with her usual, unerring truthfulness by Macdonald, the rooted, warm-hearted anchor in a lonely boy’s life.