You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t spend their childhood, in some form or another, wandering through the Hundred Acre Wood with Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet and the rest of A. A. Milne’s wonderful coterie of honey-loving friends.
There was something, and still is if you care to read the books as an adult (you likely need their message of friendship and inclusion now more than ever anyway), ineffably comforting about taking a step or two back from the everyday and imagining a world where Pooh Sticks and flying into the sky under a red balloon and trying to find where the Woozle wasn’t are part and parcel of a carefree child-like world.
But as much as we like to think of Winnie the Pooh as real, and in my heart he will always feel that way, the truth is he and the others were the creations of A. A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), based on the toys given to his son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston/Alex Crawther) by his considerably disengaged but loving mother Daphne (Margot Robbie).
Milne, who has come to be largely defined by Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), was first and foremost a celebrated playwright, a man who had survived the horrors of trench warfare in World War 1 with a strong and understandable anti-war stance.
Anxious after the war to make a statement on the futility of armed conflict, he instead found himself, under commercial pressures since he was assured that no one wants to know about war and its unpalatable realities, writing plays such as the celebrated Mr Pim Passes By (1919) and of course the Pooh books and their attendant books of poems such as When We Were Very Young (1924) and Now We Are Six (1927).
They were almost immediate successes, thrusting Milne, but more importantly and somewhat damagingly Christopher Robin into a noisy, cacophonous media spotlight, the kind of tumult that Milne had sought to avoid when he moved his family to the bucolic idyll of rural Sussex, rather fortuitously near Ashdown Forest which became in time the much-storied Hundred Acre Wood.
Milne’s wife Daphne, a socialite who reveled in the noise and excess of London, wasn’t as much of a fan of this tree change as the two Milne boys who initially struggled to form a connection, even with far more time on their respective hands.
As Christopher Milne explains in his delightfully conversational but sometimes painfully honest memoir The Enchanted Places, this was partly due to the presence of Nanny (Kelly Macdonald) who he adored and who was, for all intents and purposes his mother and father figure up until the age of nine.
It wasn’t until she left the family’s employ – in the film this is due to a clash with Daphne who seems to resent the fact that Nanny has assuming the prime parenting role, despite the fact that Mrs Milne had largely abrogated it in the first place – that Christopher Robin and his father grew closer, although some fissures, caused my Milne senior’s PTSD, remained.
In Goodbye Christopher Robin, which references the journey that both men but particularly the real life protagonist of the books, had to undertake to make their peace with the epically larger-than-life phenomenon that was Winnie the Pooh, the curtain is peeled back and we see, in a way reminiscent of Christopher Milne’s own memoir confessions, what it was like to be at the centre of the publishing storm.
A. A. Milne, who couldn’t quite reconcile the way the books he wrote for his son came to overshadow all his other writing endeavours, was unaware of the effect it was having on his son at first, going along with the media circus, the interviews and the request for appearances that came with the public’s obsession with the idea that Christopher Robin was real.
Perhaps that meant the adventures and all the escapist wonder that came with them was real too? But as the script by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan lays out in exquisitely beautiful, emotionally-resonant but troubling detail, the reality was darker and more difficult than a meander through the woods in search of the Heffalump or to Owl’s home in the trees.
If you’re expecting a whimsical visit back to the Hundred Acre Wood, and a confirmation that yours and the public’s assumptions that real life mirrored the world of Winnie-the-Pooh, you should go looking for another movie entirely.
Goodbye Christopher Robin, which has more than its fair share of sweet, lovely moments – the scenes where Milne senior and junior wander through the woods together while both Nanny and Daphne are away for one two week period are delightful and the making of the father-son bond that Christopher is adamant persisted into adulthood despite everything – is also starkly honest about the effects of PTSD, about remote parenting and the negative consequences of surrendering yourself to the media machine.
We come to understand, in ways that are calmly understated but ruthlessly incisive nonetheless under the expert direction of Simon Curtis, that both men suffered at the hands of Winnie the Pooh to some degree or another.
Milne struggled with the eclipsing of his other much-celebrated work in Punch magazine and on the West End’s many stages, while Christopher Robin, who refused to take any of the bounteous royalties that flowed from Pooh’s global omnipresence, found his childhood ambivalence and occasional enjoyment of the media spotlight morphing into teenage resentment as his literary persona was used as a potent weapon by the many bullies he encountered at boarding school (they were particularly fond of “On Bumping Down the Stairs”).
That both men made their peace with the negative aspects of Winnie the Pooh is a matter of historical record – in the film Christopher Robin goes off to war in 1941 bitterly unhappy about his childhood, but returns much more accepting and circumspect, all too aware of what it meant to a generation of men, especially when death loomed – but Goodbye Christopher Robin touchingly reveals how A. A. Milne and Christopher Milne came to value but not be defined by the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood.
Delightful to look at, with the English countryside displayed at its most entrancing and peaceful, sunlight filtering through branches and imaginary snowfalls punctuating the summer idyll, Goodbye Christopher Robin ultimately celebrates the father-son bond of the Milnes, finishing with the idea that while Winnie the Pooh and the adventures he had in the Hundred Acre Wood are now everyone’s to enjoy, that “it was ours first”, a precious bond that all the media appearances and emotional dislocation in the world couldn’t take away from them.