For anyone with a passing interest in film, the origin story is something that we have become accustomed to. Generally associated with the superhero genre (think Batman Begins, Man of Steel or the upcoming Joker film), the need for filling in every minor detail seems to take priority over leaving something to the imagination. This trend has seeped into other genres, detailing how certain cultural pillars came to be – with Goodbye Christopher Robin, we witness how the beloved Winnie the Pooh stories were brought to life.
Domnhall Gleeson plays AA Milne (known as Blue by his friends), a London playwright suffering from PTSD after his time in the Great War. Growing disillusioned with the mundanity of the city life, he uproots his socialite wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), and their new-born son, Christopher, who they affectionately nickname ‘Billy Moon’, to a tranquil Sussex cottage. He hopes to write an anti-war book, but finds that his son’s (played terrifically by newcomer Will Tilston) vivid imagination offers a far more invigorating story to be told.
After years of neglect, it takes the brief departure of Daphne and Nou (a superb Kelly Macdonald), Billy’s nanny, before the boy can finally connect with his father. It’s the strolls through the forest that facilitate their burgeoning relationship, helping Blue to overcome his tarnished memories of nature. In a poignant scene, Billy reiterates that it’s “just bees” when Blue starts having flashbacks, realising that his son holds the key to getting over his shellshock and writer’s block.
After the Winnie the Pooh poems become a success, Blue and Daphne neglect Billy to the point of future resentment, parading him around like a show pony, confirming his fears that he’ll be remembered as Christopher Robin and not Billy Moon. It’s here where Macdonald takes centre-stage, nurturing Billy in a way that Daphne never did, expertly playing the Mary Poppins-esque role with care and nuance. The interactions between the pair are warm and tender – their time together proves to be respite from countless promotional obligations (from interviews to meet and greets). This newfound fame adversely effects Billy, believing that his father was solely using him as inspiration for his books. If it weren’t for a hammy performance from Alex Lawther as the grown-up Billy, the poignant screenplay would have been far more impactful.
In a film of decently developed characters, it’s Daphne who is the outlier – her constant selfishness and rudeness make her feel like a one-dimensional villain, who, unlike her husband, shows no remorse for the way Billy has been treated. Given that her personality never changes, it seems odd that no one in the whole family ever takes an issue with it. Blue is obviously conflicted, with Gleeson doing his growing reputation no harm whatsoever, convincing as an afflicted soldier who wants to be open with his son, but who can’t bring himself to do so.
The care for the characters is replicated in the look of the film – the colour palette is a permanent autumnal golden-brown, conveying that sense of rurality. This coupled with the immaculate costume design give the film a clean, almost unblemished look, juxtaposing nicely with the relative turmoil in the characters’ personal lives. Even though the musical score is a tad schmaltzy, screenwriter Frank Cotterill Boyce is not afraid to show some conflict amongst all the fame, meaning that Goodbye Christopher Robin doesn’t become as sickly-sweet as Winnie’s honey.