film Where I Am May Be Lost

Shane Danielsen on Marc Forster’s ‘Christo­pher Robin’

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Shane Danielsen on Marc Forster’s ‘Christo­pher Robin’

He seemed at once like a good fa­ther. Per­haps a sin­gle dad, hav­ing his Satur­day out­ing; you won­dered, as he ush­ered them into the cinema, if all three lit­tle girls were his. They edged along our row, weighed down with pop­corn and Red Vines and so­das al­most as big as them­selves, and took their seats as the lights dimmed for the trail­ers.

First was Small­foot – ba­si­cally Mon­sters, Inc. with im­proved fur-ren­der­ing and di­min­ished wit. Then Cate Blanchett cash­ing a cheque in The House With a Clock in Its Walls. And fi­nally a teaser for Tim Bur­ton’s live­ac­tion re­make of Dumbo. (And has there been a bet­ter trailer this year, in­ci­den­tally, than this one? The film may prove re­dun­dant, but that 90-sec­ond promo fairly sings.) At last the cinema went fully dark, the ex­cited whis­pers from the mid­dle of the row ceased, and Christo­pher Robin be­gan.

I spent the fol­low­ing 104 min­utes laugh­ing and weep­ing in more or less equal mea­sure – as did my wife, sit­ting be­side me. At one par­tic­u­larly an­guished mo­ment, she whis­pered tightly, “Oh, god.” Win­nie the Pooh had just told the grown-up Christo­pher Robin – whom he’d not seen in more than 30 years – that he’d thought about him ev­ery day, and we could feel our hearts be­ing bro­ken into shards and ground into a fine, pink dust.

Af­ter­wards the cred­its rolled. “I need a minute,” my wife said, wip­ing her eyes on the back of her hand. Around us, peo­ple were fil­ing out of the cinema. A num­ber of the taller pa­trons, I no­ticed, were snif­fling. I waited, se­cretly grate­ful for the de­lay, and then we gath­ered our things and left.

As we went down the stairs I felt the un­fa­mil­iar, al­most ver­tig­i­nous sen­sa­tion of hav­ing had my ex­pec­ta­tions thor­oughly up­ended. I hadn’t imag­ined the film would be good – early word of mouth had been dis­cour­ag­ing – but there it was, con­sis­tently de­light­ful and fre­quently ex­cel­lent. Even Ewan McGre­gor, an ac­tor I’ve rarely en­joyed on­screen, was ter­rific in the lead, his ini­tial prig­gish­ness yield­ing to an in­fec­tious, en­tirely cred­i­ble sense of joy.

Out in the lobby I lined up to val­i­date my park­ing ticket. And as I waited I saw the same dad ap­proach­ing, sur­rounded by his three young charges. “Now hold on a minute while I find this,” he was say­ing, fum­bling in his wal­let for his own ticket. But some­thing in his voice, a tight­ness, made me look again. His eyes, I saw, were red from cry­ing.

He saw me look­ing, of course. And a shy, al­most abashed smile broke across his face.

“Je­sus,” he said softly. “How ter­rific was that?” The girls – the film’s in­tended au­di­ence – stared up at us in baf­fled in­com­pre­hen­sion. The movie had been cool: they were dis­cussing it even then, re­play­ing their favourite lines and jokes. It was funny, and Pooh was su­per adorable. So why were these grown-ups act­ing so weird?

“To de­ter­mine the realm in which these dolls have their ex­is­tence, we have to con­clude from their ap­pear­ance that there are no chil­dren in their lives, that the pre­con­di­tion for their ori­gin would be that the world of child­hood is past [and that] the doll has fi­nally out­grown the un­der­stand­ing, the in­volve­ment, the joy and sor­row of the child; it is in­de­pen­dent, grown up, pre­ma­turely old; it has en­tered into the un­re­al­i­ties of its own life.”

A few months ago I bought a book, On Dolls, pub­lished by Not­ting Hill Edi­tions and edited by Ken­neth Gross. And among the pieces col­lected there – ex­cerpts from Baude­laire and Freud, frag­ments of sto­ries by Kafka and Bruno Schulz, and El­iz­a­beth Bishop’s char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally odd and be­guil­ing “Cirque d’Hiver” (about a lit­tle toy horse with “a for­mal, melan­choly soul”) – was an es­say by Rainer Maria Rilke, “On the Wax Dolls of Lotte Pritzel”, from which the quote above is taken.

Pritzel’s dolls were made for adults, not chil­dren. Baroque creations of wax and wire, they fea­tured in nu­mer­ous ex­hi­bi­tions in Weimar-era Mu­nich, in­spir­ing dancers, writ­ers and artists in the city’s bo­hemian scene. Rather a long way, you would think, from the bu­colic English sen­si­bil­ity of A.A. Milne. Nev­er­the­less it was Rilke’s words that came to mind as I watched Christo­pher Robin. Read­ing and watch­ing, I found my­self con­tem­plat­ing the same thing: the cu­ri­ous in­ten­sity of our re­la­tion­ship with our child­hood com­pan­ions, and the fates to which we later con­sign them.

That toys can in­spire sor­row and even an­guish in adults will come as no sur­prise to any­one with even a pass­ing ac­quain­tance with Calvin and Hobbes, or who has sat through the fi­nal mo­ments of Toy Story 3. Pa­tient and un­chang­ing, the doll (or teddy bear, or what-haveyou) is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered a marker of lost in­no­cence, an emis­sary from the prelap­sar­ian world we once oc­cu­pied – hap­pily, thought­lessly – and from which, in­evitably, we were ex­pelled. They come to rep­re­sent not them­selves nor even their sen­ti­men­tal bur­den – the im­men­sity of nar­ra­tive and emo­tions we in­vested in them – but sim­ply the in­ex­orable move­ment of time. To weep for the aban­doned or for­got­ten doll, it’s said, is ac­tu­ally to weep for our­selves, as the years go by and the clock nudges us ever closer to death.

In fact, I think this is only partly cor­rect. Toys, after all, aren’t merely sym­bols, but phys­i­cal ob­jects; more­over, they’re one of the very few things that as chil­dren we ac­tu­ally pos­sess. When we out­grow them, when we set them aside, they in­evitably change, both in pur­pose

and in na­ture. And it’s here, amid “the un­re­al­i­ties of its own life”, that a sec­ond, darker story might be­gin. (Rilke again: “Faced with the stolid and un­chang­ing dolls of child­hood, have we not won­dered again and again, as we might of cer­tain stu­dents, what was to be­come of them?”)

Nev­er­the­less, as its ti­tle sug­gests, Christo­pher Robin is chiefly about a per­son. More pre­cisely, it’s about what hap­pened after the events of Milne’s The House at Pooh Cor­ner – and it opens, ap­pro­pri­ately, with that book’s fi­nal scene, as nine-year-old Christo­pher, soon to leave for school, spends one last day with his friends in the Hun­dred Acre Wood. A tea party is thrown, Eey­ore makes a (mourn­ful) speech, and Christo­pher and Pooh say their last good­byes, one of the sad­dest and loveli­est scenes in all English lit­er­a­ture.

That this se­quence works so well is tes­ta­ment, in part, to the per­for­mance of Or­ton O’Brien as the young Christo­pher – the rare child-ac­tor you don’t want to slap. But it’s also worth not­ing that his com­pan­ions look ex­actly like a kid’s beloved play­things: bat­tered, grimy, a lit­tle thread­bare. In­deed, di­rec­tor Marc Forster does some­thing very in­ter­est­ing here, em­pha­sis­ing their toy­ness (you see, quite clearly, the fab­ric, the stitch­ing, the but­tons-for-eyes) while at the same time us­ing long lenses, a hand­held cam­era and close fram­ing to make them ap­pear far more solid, more con­vinc­ingly real, than the vast ma­jor­ity of CGI creations.

Be­sides defini­tively choos­ing a side, sit­ting the viewer in the ac­tual rather than the imag­ined world, the re­sult­ing vis­ual ten­sion bril­liantly cap­tures the mys­te­ri­ous and in­ef­fa­ble terms of play, where the child si­mul­ta­ne­ously knows and chooses to for­get that their stuffed play­mates are not real. (As such, it’s a re­hearsal for the busi­ness of watch­ing movies, in which the viewer is con­stantly re­quired to af­firm con­tra­dic­tory truths: yes, that’s Tom Cruise up there, friend of Xenu – but it’s also Ethan Hunt, su­per-spy. That’s Gal Gadot and also Won­der Woman.)

We then pro­ceed through a kind of ex­tended mon­tage – a suc­ces­sion of short scenes, in­tro­duced as chap­ters in some other, undis­cov­ered book – that pro­pels us quickly through the ma­jor events of Christo­pher’s sub­se­quent life. His first day at board­ing school. The death of his fa­ther. His ini­tial en­counter, on the crowded up­per deck of a bus, with Eve­lyn (Hay­ley Atwell, un­der­used), the woman he will marry. All mas­ter­fully edited by Matt Chessé, and set to Ge­off Zanelli and Jon Brion’s del­i­cate, lovely score, tick­ing away be­neath the ac­tion like a pocket watch.

But then, abruptly, the tone shifts gears, with a har­row­ing glimpse of Christo­pher at war – a sol­dier now, his child­hood far be­hind him. De­mobbed, he re­turns to Lon­don, to Eve­lyn and their daugh­ter, Made­line, and be­gins work­ing at the Winslow Lug­gage Com­pany as that most ir­re­deemable of things: an ef­fi­ciency ex­pert.

One can hardly con­ceive a more damn­ing sign of how far he’s fallen.

Be­fore long he’s ne­glect­ing his fam­ily, work­ing nights and week­ends in a vain at­tempt to sat­isfy his boss, the lazy and hyp­o­crit­i­cal Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss at his most oleagi­nous). The busi­ness is fail­ing, he in­forms Christo­pher. Hard de­ci­sions must be made. “Noth­ing comes from noth­ing,” Giles de­clares flatly, as if he were Lear and Christo­pher were Cordelia. As Christo­pher’s wife and child pre­pare for a long-awaited fam­ily week­end, Giles sets his sub­or­di­nate an un­de­sir­able task: cut 20 per cent from the com­pany’s op­er­at­ing bud­get by Mon­day morn­ing.

Ex­as­per­ated, Eve­lyn and Made­line go to the coun­try with­out him. Alone in the house, Christo­pher sees a draw­ing of Pooh from his child­hood, which Eve­lyn found the day be­fore in a box in the at­tic. He stares at it for a mo­ment, and then sets it down on the kitchen table. But as he leaves for the of­fice, he ab­sent­mind­edly knocks a jar of honey over, and its con­tents seep onto the pa­per …

As spells of sum­mon­ing go, it’s not much. But it works. In what can only be de­scribed as “an­other place”, Pooh stirs and wakes from sleep (one that may have lasted years) to find the Hun­dred Acre Wood derelict, his friends miss­ing and, worst of all, no honey in his larder. So he sets off to find Christo­pher Robin, be­liev­ing only he can put mat­ters right once more.

Cred­ited to three screen­writ­ers – Amer­i­can indie stal­wart Alex Ross Perry, Tom Mc­Carthy (Spot­light) and Al­li­son Schroeder (Hid­den Fig­ures) – the script pro­ceeds through a se­ries of thor­oughly pre­dictable beats to an en­tirely ex­pected out­come. Yet there are vast de­lights to be had along the way: a sneaky homage to Al­bert Lamor­isse’s The Red Bal­loon; some phys­i­cal com­edy in­volv­ing a lit­tle bear, a plate of honey and an an­tique rug; and, above all, Pooh’s orac­u­lar pro­nounce­ments, which range from the mud­dled (“Peo­ple say noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble, but I do noth­ing ev­ery day”) to the mys­ti­cal (“Some­times when I’m go­ing some­where, and I wait, a some­where comes to me”).

Of course, Christo­pher must not only res­cue his friends, but be saved him­self. He re­turns to the Hun­dred Acre Wood to find it fog­bound (a lovely metaphor) and fallen into ruin. It’s more than a lit­tle rem­i­nis­cent of

Le Morte d’Arthur – the dy­ing land, the ab­sent king – and this, too, feels ap­pro­pri­ate, for what is child­hood if not a kind of Grail quest? Beau­ti­fully, limpidly cap­tured by cin­e­matog­ra­pher Matthias Königswieser (his long shots are es­pe­cially mag­nif­i­cent), the film charts the process of Christo­pher’s re­birth, as he be­comes once more the hero both his play­mates and his fam­ily re­quire.

But how­ever im­mac­u­late its sur­face, and as good as McGre­gor is, noth­ing in this film quite equals the mar­vel that is Jim Cum­mings’ voice as Pooh: rue­ful, ten­der, ab­so­lutely and un­de­ni­ably right.

Is it a joy­ous, de­fi­antly con­tem­po­rary achieve­ment on the level of Padding­ton 2? Not quite: it’s more pen­sive and am­bigu­ous than that. Is it as con­vul­sive and dis­qui­et­ing as Toy Story 3? It is not. But it is very, very good, in part for what oc­curs on­screen, and in part for the con­tem­pla­tion it in­spires and the virtues it ex­tols: friend­ship, loy­alty and imag­i­na­tion. And of do­ing noth­ing, which some lofty souls might call mind­ful­ness, but to me sim­ply con­notes an open­ness to the world, cou­pled with the aware­ness of one’s own mod­est, bear-like place within it. Back in 2011 I was writ­ing an Amer­i­can film, which turned out to be not ter­ri­bly good, and hav­ing my first taste of liv­ing in Los An­ge­les. I’d de­liv­ered a draft and was wait­ing for notes, and the sum­mer heat was re­lent­less, even down at Venice Beach. And so one Tues­day morn­ing, lack­ing any­thing bet­ter to do, my wife and I drove to a mul­ti­plex in Ma­rina del Rey to see Stephen J. An­der­son and Don Hall’s an­i­mated Win­nie the Pooh.

It was the first ses­sion of the day, and the cinema was al­most empty; the only other pa­trons were a lit­tle girl with her fa­ther. She was very nicely dressed, as if headed af­ter­wards to a birth­day party in Brent­wood or Bel Air. The the­atre was freez­ing, in the Amer­i­can style. The seats were old and un­com­fort­able. But the film was a mar­vel: a joy­ous, sure-footed cel­e­bra­tion of some beloved char­ac­ters, alert to and re­spect­ful of ev­ery de­tail that made them spe­cial in the first place.

As we were leav­ing the girl said to her fa­ther, with a kind of barely sup­pressed de­light, “That was a good movie.” He smiled and took her hand.

It’s easy to for­get, in the writ­ing of or about movies, the ex­pe­ri­ence of the or­di­nary viewer, and the pos­si­bil­ity for tran­scen­dence. I longed at that mo­ment to write some­thing, some­day, that might mean as much to some­body as that film had to that girl. But the years have passed – so very quickly, Pooh! – and I am older, and as yet I still have not. M

It’s easy to for­get, in the writ­ing of or about movies, the ex­pe­ri­ence of the or­di­nary viewer, and the pos­si­bil­ity for tran­scen­dence.

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