“Goodbye Christopher Robin” is an exquisite, beautiful film, and like most beautiful things, there’s something painful about it. It depicts a kind of beauty, innocence and purity that can’t be forever, whose existence forces you to stop and appreciate it now — and in the moment of appreciating it, to contemplate its future nonexistence.
That’s really the governing emotion of this film, the pitch that it reaches and sustains from beginning to end, a kind of sadness in the midst of happiness, a paradise with an awareness of mortality. It’s the story of the creation of Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne and of the rewards and consequences those books had for him and for his family, but particularly for the little boy depicted in them, his son, Christopher Robin Milne.
The books came out during the period between the world wars, and the screenplay (by Frank Cottrell Boyce Vaughan) gently suggests that they were in some way a product of World War I and a respite from dread of World War II. Milne saw horrors in his military service and moved from London to the countryside in East Sussex to find peace and to recover from the stress.
For director Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn”), the great task of “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is to accomplish two things seemingly in conflict. It’s to create an aura of enchantment on a level with the books, one that, in a sense, explains their creation, while at the same time suggesting a darker world hovering outside of it. He lingers, for example, on the view from Milne’s property — an undisturbed, peaceful green vista — while reminding us that such valleys were the settings for the worst battles of the Great War.
Domhnall Gleeson, as Milne, is gentle and witty, radiating a quiet pleasure at his own brilliance, but with an aura of sadness that he cannot shake. His face is like the most sensitive seismograph for everything he’s feeling, so that in a close-up, we not only see his thoughts, but flickers of half-thoughts. Watching Gleeson here feels like witnessing something privileged and intimate.
But then, this is a film of remarkable performances, including that of the movie’s most astonishing find, Will Tillston, who plays the 8-year-old Christopher Robin. Tillston has a face out of a fairy tale, completely open and sweet. Just in terms of pure being, he’s ideal for the role, but he’s also called upon to act, to suggest an understanding of his father’s pain, and a devotion to his nanny, and a joy in nature, and a growing disillusionment at his unwelcome fame — and he does it all, and beautifully.
As a director, Curtis is able to communicate complicated states without relying on a line or two of dialogue to explain his meaning. Notice his direction of Margot Robbie as Daphne Milne, who could have been played as a superficial snob — or even worse, as a misunderstood superficial snob. Instead, Curtis and Robbie present us with a complex woman, a product of her class and of her emotional limitations, but also in possession of certain strengths.
This willingness to present people in their fullness extends to the Nanny as well, played by Kelly Macdonald as a person of deep sensitivity and patience, but also a lust to find her own life, outside domestic servitude. And then there’s Stephen Campbell Moore as E.H. Shepard, the illustrator of the “Pooh” books, who appears in only a couple of scenes, and yet powerfully conveys that he, too, was scarred by his experience of war.
This is the movie’s one big idea, which is more than an idea but an enveloping emotion that surrounds every scene, that the pain of war somehow led to this expression of childhood innocence and joy — and further, that this expression of childhood joy led to pain. In expressing this, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” touches something bigger than its own ambitions. It touches, in a way movies rarely do, on some essential current of life.
Goodbye Christopher Robin
Rated: PG for thematic elements, some bullying, war images, brief language. Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Will Tillston. Director: Simon Curtis. Running time: 107 minutes. Theater: Flicks.