It’s nearly summer, which means that studios are starting to release their ‘prestige’ films for Oscar season. It’s hard not to know one when you see one – they star A-list actors playing real life people in a story based on true historical events, and almost always end with on-screen title cards about what really happened after the events in the film. Bonus points if the credits include the actual version of a picture recreated in the film somewhere. One of the first of such films this year is Simon Curtis’s Goodbye Christopher Robin. Starring Domnhal Gleeson and Margot Robbie as A.A. Milne and his wife, Daphne, it’s based on the true story of Milne writing the original “Winnie-the-Pooh” stories and how their success affected his relationship with his son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston).
A.A. Milne had an interesting life, so it’s not surprising why screenwriters Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan wanted to make a movie about him, but it feels like they couldn’t decide which aspect they wanted to focus on. Each act of the film feels like it’s telling a completely different story – his struggles adjusting to normal life after fighting in World War 1, the creation of “Winnie-the-Pooh”, and his relationship with Christopher Robin. These stories all explore interesting concepts but none of them are given the time needed to develop, and the last act has to rely on a jarring time-jump in order to wrap everything up in under two hours. I found this particularly frustrating as the story of Christopher Robin’s complex relationship with his father is easily the most interesting part, yet is rushed over with a tacked-on happy ending.
Although the story and it’s format feels conventional, Goodbye Christopher Robin does distinguish itself through some inventive creative flourishes. Milne’s PTSD is effectively represented by combining everyday sounds with the sounds of battle to demonstrate the psychological scars of war, with balloons and champagne corks popping mixing with gunfire and explosions. Ben Smithard’s cinematography captures the natural simplicity of Winnie-the-Pooh’s original illustrations, at times even turning into living drawings. Yet these two elements never quite work together – the film is too bright and warm to give the darker moments of Milne’s life justice, and the happier moments fall flat with a knowledge of how Milne and Robin’s real life relationship was fractured by his books.
This mismatch of styles carries into the performances, with Domhnall Gleeson underplaying his role while Margot Robbie overplays hers. Newcomer Will Tilston is cute as a button as young Christopher Robin but struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes. Kelly Macdonald delivers the most consistently strong performance as the sympathetic nanny yet gets little to actually do beyond delivering comforting words that sound great in a film trailer but hackneyed in real life. Ultimately that’s the biggest problem I found with Goodbye Christopher Robin – it always felt like I was watching a film based on real events, rather than watching anything real.