Monday, September 25, 2017

Goodbye Christopher Robin: an upsetting insight into the human tragedy behind the beloved books (from 29 Sep)

Prepare yourself for an upsetting film. Profoundly upsetting. The kind of upset that causes you to weep without control. The kind of upset that makes you wonder about children you know – maybe even your own – and whether they are loved and know that they are loved, whether they are being exploited as a pawn in their adults’ lives or treasured for the wondrous new creation they are.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and directed by Simon Curtis. Their film captures the origin story of the much beloved (and now Disney-fied) characters. But that’s not the film’s real story or message. Instead its powerful narrative tells of a family where love and affection is outsourced to a nanny, where a child is fed into the UK and USA media mangle and the handle cranked to squeeze out every last dollar from his depiction in the four tales of life in Hundred Acre Wood.

Alan and Daphne Milne were both traumatised by the First World War: one by the first hand encounter with the violence including service at the Battle of the Somme, the other by the nervous waiting to see if her author and playwright husband (who was an assistant editor of the satirical magazine Punch before the war) would ever return.

Alan: “I’ve had enough of making people laugh; I want to make people see.”

Daphne: “It’s a perfectly horrid idea.”

After the war, one wanted to write about why war was dishonourable, the other believed that further wars were inevitable and would swallow up the next generation as it had hers.

Into this crisis of negativity and distress was born Christopher Robin. Unexpected he was not a girl. The family referred to him as ‘Billy’ and due to his difficulty pronouncing his surname, Christopher’s pet name at home was ‘Billy Moon’. In the film we watch Billy Moon grow up in the arms of his nanny Olive who he called ‘Nou’ (since everyone in the story, even some of the stuffed toys, have more than one name). The distance between parents and child is perhaps most evident when Billy refers to ‘Blue’ (his father’s nickname) and ‘Daphne’.

The family move to the rural idyll of East Sussex and we are introduced to some of the triggers which stop Alan in his tracks and mentally take him back to the heat of battle. We see beautifully lit scenery and a small boy who trails his teddybear through the paths, finally bonding with his father when both Daphne and nanny Nou abandon them to their own devices for a period. This is perhaps the only silver-lined cloud in the whole tale.

AA Milne’s feelings about war and his wife’s premonition of what may happen to the next generation are introduced in the opening scenes and picked up once more towards the end of the film. While Billy Moon’s childhood and schooling are tear-jerking catastrophes, his decision to join up to serve in the Second World War will also leave you spluttering in your cinema seat.

Margot Robbie plays the perfectly horrid society girl Daphne Milne who could not detach from her fears. Domhnall Gleeson blends aloofness with madcap thinking and an obsession with rhyming as the author and occasional father who got a friend Earnest (Stephen Campbell Moore) to illustrate the stories that were being created out in the woods surrounding his house. Robbie and Gleeson succeed in making their characters unlikeable.

Young Will Tilson with his piercing brown eyes and golden locks plays the younger eponymous role for the majority of the film, handing over to Alex Lawther in a bump-bump transition that Winnie-the-Pooh would appreciate for the last quarter of the 107 minute long film. Tilson and Kelly Macdonald (who plays the nanny) make a great team, though sadly that relationship also comes to an abrupt end.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a character study of a traumatised family into which a child is thrust. Stories that have brought success to an author and great joy to readers in a post-war era when the chips were down are shown to have been born out of heartache and depression, and shown to have caused an invasion of privacy and a disowning of loving parenting.

Unexpectedly there is redemption at the end of the film. But it’s not enough to forgive the years of trauma that precede it. And it doesn’t quite reflect the real life story that ends with estrangement.

This study of parenting – Goodbye Christopher Robin – is released on the UK on Friday 29 September and is being screened in Movie House cinemas as well as the QFT.

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