Empire (Australasia) - - On Screen - JONATHAN PILE


DI­REC­TOR Si­mon Cur­tis

CAST Domh­nall Glee­son, Mar­got Rob­bie, Kelly Macdon­ald, Will Til­ston

PLOT Suf­fer­ing PTSD af­ter re­turn­ing from World War I, play­wright A.A. Milne (Glee­son) moves his fam­ily to the coun­try­side and at­tempts to write an anti-war book. But while suf­fer­ing from writer’s block he be­gins bond­ing with his young son (Til­ston) and en­vis­ages a story for chil­dren in­stead.

CHRISTO­PHER ROBIN WAS real, and he wasn’t happy about it. More specif­i­cally, he wasn’t happy to be put in a sit­u­a­tion where peo­ple dis­cov­er­ing he was ‘the real Christo­pher Robin’ meant some­thing — that his child­hood games had been pack­aged and sold by his fa­ther across four books and count­less items of tie-in mer­chan­dise. When you see him as a six-year-old be­ing door stepped by re­porters or told to stand by a real bear for a photo op (“He’ll be fine as long as he doesn’t make any sud­den move­ments”), you start to see his point.

It’s this fa­ther-son re­la­tion­ship be­tween A.A. Milne and “Billy Moon” (Christo­pher’s par­ents’ pet name for him) that’s at the heart of Good­bye Christo­pher Robin. Milne re­turned from World War I a changed man. Suf­fer­ing from post­trau­matic stress dis­or­der, bright lights, loud noises, even the buzzing of bees trans­ported him back to the atroc­i­ties he wit­nessed at the Somme. His so­lu­tion was a move out of Lon­don — swap­ping his Chelsea town­house for the peace of a Sus­sex farm­house so he could con­cen­trate on his writ­ing. Here he be­gan spend­ing time out­doors and, con­se­quently, more time with his son.

As a re­ac­tion to this, his wife, Daphne (Rob­bie), upped and left, vow­ing only to re­turn when he started writ­ing again. Which, in­spired by Christo­pher’s games with his soft toys in the woods by his house, he soon did — writ­ing a col­lec­tion of po­ems ( When We Were Very Young) fol­lowed by the novel Win­nie-the-pooh.

If Daphne’s ac­tions seem un­fath­omable and heart­less, that isn’t the half of it. Her char­ac­ter is, by a dis­tance, the weak­est el­e­ment of the film. In re­al­ity, she was also psy­cho­log­i­cally dam­aged (not least by her ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing child­birth) but the script doesn’t give her is­sues the same cre­dence it gives her hus­band’s. She’s thinly writ­ten, and comes off as a self-cen­tred, one-note vil­lain. Har­ley Quinn was more like­able.

But mostly, ev­ery­thing else works. Milne was a renowned wit, and the di­a­logue is sharply writ­ten (“The midwife says nine pounds. I’m in­clined to think mid­wives are like an­glers — ex­ag­ger­at­ing the size of the catch”). And while real-life events ap­pear con­densed, or slightly moved in the time­line to bet­ter fit the film’s nar­ra­tive, the essence is the same. The sto­ries be­come world­wide best­sellers, pro­pel­ling his son to a level of fame he can’t com­pre­hend, but which his par­ents are happy to ex­ploit for mone­tary gain. Even be­fore the books’ suc­cess, Christo­pher was pre­dom­i­nately raised by his nanny, Olive (Macdon­ald), and his at­tach­ment to her only grows as his par­ents be­come more pre­oc­cu­pied.

De­spite it be­gin­ning with Milne’s strug­gles, the film ul­ti­mately fo­cuses on Christo­pher’s emo­tional jour­ney. And whether that’s suc­cess­ful comes down to the ac­tor play­ing him. Hap­pily, Will Til­ston (in his first role) is a rev­e­la­tion. Nat­u­ral­is­tic in a way most child ac­tors aren’t, it’s easy to just ac­cept how good he is rather than shout about it. But shout about it we should. He sells ev­ery mo­ment — his joy is ours and so is his sorrow. The age­ing of the char­ac­ter means he’s passed the role to an­other ac­tor (Alex Lawther) by the time the film ap­proaches its heartwrench­ing fi­nale, but that it lands is down to the work he’s done. Not a bad start.

VER­DICT A witty and touch­ing fa­ther-son tale. And at its cen­tre: a star­tling de­but from Will Til­ston, whose com­pelling per­for­mance en­sures its emo­tional mo­ments land suc­cess­fully.

Teddy found his Zen. The other two? Not so much.

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