Saturday 18 November 2017


I've just noticed that the DVD of Goodbye Christopher Robin is online as a pre-order item which reminds me that I never wrote about the film when it opened, despite having attended the premiere.

The film garnered mixed – indeed polarised – reviews with critiques ranging from:
"Goodbye Christopher Robin touches something bigger than its own ambitions. It touches, in a way movies rarely do, on some essential current of life" to "The film's main conflict is with its source material, twisting and wringing A A Milne's life for everything it's worth and hoping enough is squeezed out to qualify as a film"; and from "the movie's focus on the caustic effects of celebrity make this narrative set in the first half of the 20th century particularly relevant for the media-frenzied 21st" to "everything in this too-too movie feels overfermented, off".

For me, watching the film was a curious experience, mainly because I know too much about the subject. I have a written books, radio plays and programmes touching on the movie's story-line, as well as having known the 'real life Christopher Robin' and corresponded with his mother, his nanny and the artist, Ernest H Shepard who drew the unforgettable illustrations. So, my judgement is probably tainted with both too much knowledge of How Things Actually Were and an abiding affection for the collaboration between Milne and Shepard that created two books of verses about 'Christopher Robin' (and other children) and two books of stories about Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and the rest of the inhabitants of the 100 Aker Wood that have been literally life-long friends.

Trying to view the film dispassionately is, therefore, quite difficult. But let me try...

The first thing that needs to be said is that the scenario dexterously walks the perilous tightrope between sentiment and sentimentality; and the screenplay – by the absurdly talented Frank Cottrell-Boyce – merges the factual with the fictional while deftly coping with the difficulty of not being able to quote from the books (due to their being the copyright property of the Disney Company) while providing sufficient memory-triggering imagery to take our minds to where the screenwriter wants us to be. So, for example, a scene in which Mr Milne and his young son track their own footsteps through the snow carries us back to a snowy spinney where Pooh and Piglet do something similar without once having to mention the word 'Woozle'.

Simon Curtis has a light but sure hand on the directorial tiller and is served well by his cast: Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie as Alan and Daphne Milne – the former abstracted by shattering experiences from the First World War, the latter a rather self-absorbed '20s socialite – Kelly Macdonald as Olive, the nanny who is closer to the Milne's child than they are, and young Will Tilston (a stunning debut) as the 8-year-old Christopher and Alex Lawther as his, later, 18-year-old self.

The photography by Ben Smithard is full of great beauty – the authentic across-the-seasons Ashdown Forest settings are achingly exquisite featuring the genuine Poohsticks Bridge and the Milne's actual country home, Cotchford Farm.

Some quibbles are inevitable (from a veteran Poohologist) and are easily explained by the need of charactersation and dramatic tension, but it was hard to accept the 'chummy' friendship between Milne and Shepard who – despite their common experiences during the Great War – were never close friends but only ever professional collaborators; and, whilst there is hardly a photograph or portrait of Milne where is depicted without his pipe, there's not a whiff of 'Old Holborn' evident in this writer's study. No doubt the same restrictions on certification meant that the society cocktail party in the film is a similarly smoke-free zone.

But, as I say, these are trivialities (as is the curious decision to give the clean-shave Shepard an unnecessary moustache); however, my overwhelming concern (is that too extreme a word?) about Goodbye Christopher Robin is the way it has impacted on the Truth, whatever that is...

The thing is: the film is the story of how celebrity distorted the life of the title character by fictionalising the young Christopher Milne into that literary character 'Christopher Robin' who said his prayers, went to watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and lived in a tree in the middle of the forest with talking animals.

The film asks us to mourn the cost of that distortion (whilst simultaneously celebrating the brilliance of the books that resulted from it) but in doing so, Goodbye Christopher Robin inevitably fictionalises the story yet again, taking it further from, not closer to, the truth. The image of A A Milne sitting on the top of the Ashdown Forest alongside his son – interchangeably as a child and as a man – suggests a sense of understanding and reconciliation between them that is an emotionally satisfying coda, but one that is basically, and sadly, untrue.

The balance is redressed by the fact that my friend and Pooh-colleague, Ann Thwaite who, in 1990, wrote the definitive biography of A A Milne has now written a new book with a partially-similar title to the film, Goodbye Christopher Robin: A A Milne and the Making of Winnie-the-Pooh.

The book tells the story as it really was, completing the picture with a fuller understanding of who Milne was (his reputation – now largely forgotten – as a premier Punch humorist, essayist, writer of light and a hugely successful West End and Broadway dramatist) and what made him tick, his relationship with Daphne ("I married her because she laughed at my jokes") and the impact of the social mores existing among the upper and upper-middle classes of the 1920s which often resulted in the bond between child and nanny that had greater resonance than between child and mother.

Anne's full biography is also still in print, A A Milne: His Life, as is Milne's own account of How-Things-Were (just reprinted) It's Too Late Now: The Autobiography of a Writer.

And anyone who really wants to know what it was like growing up and growing older as 'Christopher Robin' should read Christopher Milne's brilliantly written reflection – by turn, sharply painful and deeply moving – The Enchanted Places: A Childhood Memoir which, thanks to the film, is back in print.

Also recently published is James Campbell's The Art of Winnie-the-Pooh: How E H Shepard Illustrated an Icon containing a exceptional gallery of illustrations – many published for the first time – but which is so riddled with errors of identification, as to make the book anything but the last word on Shepard's artistry and his contribution to the mythology of the 100 Aker Wood.

And, finally, anyone seeking more news on Pooh can always consult my own Three Cheers for Pooh...


Beth Stilborn said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and knowledgeable view of the film, Brian. I have yet to see the film, and have been wondering about it. When I do watch it, I will keep in mind your thoughts, which do much to address the concerns I've had even before watching the movie.

Nancy Reyes said...

Linked. Thanks for giving us a back story of the film.