The magical world of A.A. Milne’s ‘Winnie the Pooh’ stories continues to enchant generations of young readers, yet this biographical drama suggests that a rather darker family history lurks behind the bedtime favourite.
In Domhnall Gleeson’s straight-backed portrayal, Milne is shown as a somewhat troubled figure, a formerly successful writer of light theatrical comedies who faced crippling writer’s block when attempting to turn his traumatic First World War combat experiences into great literature. Having moved his wife Daphne and small son Christopher Robin to wooded rural seclusion so he could concentrate on his magnum opus, fooling around with children’s stories which brought their boy’s collection of soft toys to imaginative life turned out to be a blessed relief – and, of course, delivered Milne extraordinary worldwide fame and fortune.
As the film title suggests however, the emotional focus here is on Christopher Robin himself, as the story brings to light a bitter irony. It turns out that the happy child in the stories, pottering around Hundred Acre Wood with his pals Pooh, Tigger and Piglet, actually had a somewhat miserable childhood in real life.
Dimple-cheeked junior performer Will Tilston is so impossibly cute he almost looks as if he’s walked out of an illustration, yet he touchingly conveys both the joyful innocence and thwarted sadness of a child who’d much rather be playing with his dad than giving endless rounds of interviews promoting his books. None of which, frankly, endears us very much to Mr and Mrs Milne as they’re pictured in the course of the story.
In his previous features, My Week with Marilyn and Woman in Gold, experienced theatre and television director Simon Curtis managed a judicious blend of facts and dramatic licence.
In this instance though, while the notion of Milne essentially turning his own son into a brand to be exploited is certainly intriguing as cultural history, the writing never quite allows us to understand why Gleeson’s author and Margot Robbie as his brittle spouse, both proved so blasé about Christopher Robin’s basic well-being.
In some respects, this is symptomatic of the posh parenting values of another age, but it does risk the audience buying out of the film, which cannily has the reliably empathetic Kelly Macdonald on hand as the family’s solicitous nanny to add some much-needed warmth and common sense.
At times, it feels a little like the proceedings lack a compelling dramatic core, yet there is an appalled fascination to the revelation of the backstory behind such a beloved literary classic.
With its golden-hued vintage Home Counties settings accompanied by Carter Burwell’s string-laden score, the film affects a comforting nostalgia slightly at odds with its unsettling subject matter, and builds to a final-reel cliffhanger best enjoyed by those unaware of the full Milne family background.
Still, thanks to the contribution of young master Tilston (and indeed Alex Lawther who also makes an impact as the bristling teenage Christopher Robin), this remains a startling and affecting rendering of the incalculable cost of a lost childhood.
‘Winnie the Pooh’ won’t ever be the same again.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is released in cinemas on Friday 29 September