English author and playwright Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) returns from World War I with a case of shellshock, or what we now call PTSD. His wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), is just glad to have him home, and to get back to their upper-crusty West End London life of opening nights and balls, but Alan is struggling. The footlights on stage bother him, sudden loud noises bother him, and he wants to write something that will stop people from ever going to war again. So he moves his family, including young son Christopher, whom they call “Billy Moon”, to a charming house in the English countryside, where peace and quiet will help him focus. Except the buzzing of bees reminds him of flies on the battlefield.
Of course we know Alan Milne today as A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh. And his son, “Billy Moon”, is Christopher Robin, whose childhood games and imagination inspired his father’s most famous creation. In fact, the movie makes it look like Alan straight-up ripped off his son’s ideas, and also hijacked the character inspirations from the funny voices Daphne would do while playing with Billy Moon and his toys, including a stuffed bear, Edward. He does, at least, come up with Eeyore on his own. If not true to life, at least the connection between Eeyore’s down-in-the-dumps perma-state echoes in Alan’s ongoing struggle with PTSD.
This being the 1920s and the Milnes being upper-crusty sorts, the actual rearing of Billy Moon is largely left to his nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), whom Billy Moon calls “Nou”. She is a preternaturally tolerant person, suffering Billy Moon’s selfish tantrums and his parents’ casual disregard with equanimity—the only time she speaks out is when the fame of Winnie the Pooh threatens to completely ruin Billy Moon’s childhood (which it did anyway). And for his part, Billy Moon is played by Will Tilston, a child so adorable and with dimples so deep they form a vortex of cuteness from which no light can escape.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is designed to be a tear-jerker, and it will probably work on most people. Directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) and lensed by Ben Smithard (Belle), the film is soaked in golden country light—all of which is consumed by Will Tilston’s dimples—and the Ashdown Forest, inspiration for Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood, is photographed with loving fanaticism. It’s a good looking film with a good looking cast and emotional beats that gloss over the long estrangement between Christopher Milne and his parents. The film touches on the bullying he received at school, and even in the Army during World War II, but the resolution is quick to reassure us that the Milnes resolved all their problems. The epigraph even notes that Christopher was “happily married”…to his first cousin which further estranged him from his parents, as his mother and uncle didn’t speak.
It’s curious what Goodbye picks and chooses to deal with. Alan’s post-war struggles, Billy Moon’s growing resentment of Winnie the Pooh, and a little bit the fallout of the runaway success of Pooh, but then the film turns around as reassures us it’s all fine. That’s fine, that’s the story the filmmakers want to tell, about fathers and sons and the devotion of parents and forgiveness of children. But in telling that story, they do a damning injustice to Daphne Milne, who comes off as cold, at best. Margot Robbie is terrific, and her natural charm makes Daphne tolerable, but though the film introduced some motivation for Daphne, it does not follow through on examining her inner life the way Alan’s is examined. It just seems unfair, the way Alan gets to be a hero and reconcile with his son, but Daphne is just kind of forgotten, a flighty and irresponsible mother. Alan’s bad habits and negative traits are framed by his circumstances and worked out over the course of the film, but Daphne gets no such treatment.
But if you just want to watch a cute film with British award season polish, then Goodbye Christopher Robin will work for you. It will probably work best for parents, and people susceptible to the cuteness rays emitted by Will Tilston’s Bambi eyes. It is not a good portrait of A.A. Milne as a real person, but is an excellent rendering of a dream father who forgoes his own success to protect his son (really, Milne quit writing Pooh because he resented how it eclipsed his other work). And it’s definitely not a good portrait of Daphne Milne, but it is a great cinematic Selfish Mother trope. Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie make it entirely watchable, but the lack of complicated emotions means it’s also completely forgettable.