Simon Curtis’s Goodbye, Christopher Robin is a new biopic about Alan Alexander “A. A.” Milne (1882-1956). The British author, poet and playwright is best-known for a series of children’s books written for his son, Christopher Robin. Milne’s characters were all inspired by stuffed animals that belonged to Christopher, including what may be the most famous teddy bear in the world, Winnie-the-Pooh. The movie is comprised of several narrative threads, including the father-son relationship, and the little-known story of the writer’s World War I service, that led to his struggle with the malady then known as “shell shock.”
The film’s title, Goodbye, Christopher Robin, could be the lament of parents for their child who has matured and fled the nest, as the film begins when Christopher is an adult. It may also express Milne’s regret that the son, whose sobriquet at home was “Billy Moon,” lost much of his childhood as a result of his literary success. After the brief opening scene, the film moves to the backstory of Milne as a soldier returned from the war. “At the end of the First World War, there were so many people who didn’t come back,” Simon Curtis says, in a telephone conversation from Los Angeles, “that the people who did come back were considered the lucky ones. Of course, this was long before PTSD was recognized or understood.”
Milne, portrayed by Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson, is first seen at a party. He and his future illustrator on the Winnie-the-Pooh books, Ernest H. Shepard (relative newcomer, Stephen Campbell Moore), learn that they were both in the Somme Offensive, in France, the worst battle of “the war to end all wars” in which the British lost 420,000 men in six months. The pop of a champagne cork startles Milne. “There is that beautiful moment when the two veterans speak,” Curtis says, “and Ernest realizes that Milne has terrible memories of the war.” The artist and the author were contributors to the weekly magazine Punch, and first collaborated on Milne’s 1924 poetry collection, When We Were Very Young, that featured Mr. Edward Bear, later to become Winnie-the-Pooh.
That story, of Christopher’s (Will Tilston) renaming of his teddy bear, is depicted in the film. On a visit to the London Zoo with Olive (Kelly Macdonald), his nanny, the boy discovers “Winnie,” a female bear named for Winnipeg, Canada. It was where her rescuer Harry Coleburn was born. Winnie’s story captured the hearts of many young Londoners from 1919 to her death in 1934. Her mother was shot by a hunter, and Coleburn who bought her as a cub, made her the mascot for his military unit, stationed in England during World War I. When he was sent to France, he gave Winnie to the zoo for safe-keeping. She was so tame that children were allowed to take photographs with her; one of Christopher in the late 1920s shows him feeding the bear.
Goodbye, Christopher Robin begins in the “present,” in the 1940s, when the Milnes learn that Christopher, a soldier in World War II, is missing in action and presumed dead. When it progresses to the “past,” the movie depicts brief glimpses of A. A. Milne in the trenches, and then his life in London society, with his wife at his side. “They were people in a certain class, at a certain time,” Curtis says, referring to the period between the wars. “The Milnes were not ‘Downtown Abbey’ perhaps, but close.” Much of the film is set during the time when the Milnes lived in East Sussex, the setting of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, and chronicles the period in the author’s life when he was writing Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928).
Curtis points out that no one could have anticipated the instant success of Winnie-the-Pooh, or the celebrity status it conferred on a shy boy who felt he became indistinguishable from his father’s character. “The world didn’t make that distinction,” the filmmaker says, “and that was the source of all of the family’s problems.” Christopher grew up to resent his father and his mother, yet he remained close to his nanny his entire life. “In that class, the mother would have the baby and then hand him or her over to a nanny for 18 years,” Curtis explains. It was nevertheless Dorothy “Daphne” Milne (Margot Robbie), Christopher’s mother, who gave him his teddy bear and his other stuffed toys. “Christopher loved her voices for the animals,” Curtis recalls. “To modern eyes, Daphne seems harsh but she wasn’t that bad.”
Ashwood Forest, near the Milne country house, figures prominently in the film, as it does in Milne’s children’s books as the Hundred Acre Wood. In the course of the story, it appears that the forest has a healing effect on the author, as he grapples with his war memories. “He left London after the war because of the impossibility of going back to his old life,” Curtis says. “Going to a new life in the country is one of the ways that he rescued himself.” The scenes set in the forest were filmed at Ashwood and Windsor Great Park, although the house was not the one owned by the Milnes. Cotchford Farm, their estate, still stands but renovations to the home made it difficult to film there. A scene on The Pooh Bridge, another setting in Milne’s books, was shot on-location.
The old showbiz adage about children and dogs is that they will always steal a scene. While Curtis, who directed My Week With Marilyn (2011), has a gift for directing actors, and gets wonderful performances from every member of the cast, his biopic is also notable for the outstanding debut of Will Tilston in the role of Christopher. “Will is just a sublime actor, and my job was to keep out of his way,” Curtis says. “When he was playing with those toys, he was totally enchanting. He was really playing!” Goodbye, Christopher Robin is not a movie for young children, although older fans of Winnie-the-Pooh will enjoy knowing why Christopher was called “Billy Moon,” and how Tigger got his name—and why Daphne dressed her baby son in girl’s clothing.