Thursday 12 October 2017

Between the wars: "Goodbye Christopher Robin"

The period hits keep on coming. Although given to a gentleness that sometimes borders on tweeness, Goodbye Christopher Robin, directed by Simon Curtis from a script by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, differentiates itself by attempting to generate something other than the now-standard nostalgia for Empire - not least an ambivalence around the idea of nostalgia full-stop. This is an author biopic, very much in the vein of Finding Neverland, 2004's hanky-dampener on the tragic personal life of J.M. Barrie, but it also intends to be a continuation of its subject's commitment to pacifism, knowing full well the casualties that generally follow when flags start flying and our youngsters are sent off to the battlefield. That gentleness, for all that it might at times appear cosy or underdramatic, is in itself a political stance. 

The author is A.A. Milne, played here by the generally upright and Poohstick-thin Domhnall Gleeson as a man very much of his time. Returning from the frontlines of "the war to end all wars", he's newly traumatised by Roaring Twenties champagne corks that go off like rockets and West End spotlights that resemble searchlights. Marriage (to Margot Robbie's society belle Daphne), fatherhood and a measure of success as a playwright and wit-for-hire all follow, yet as the film has it, it was only with the family's relocation to the open spaces and fresh air of Ashdown Forest in leafy Sussex that Milne found both peace-of-mind and his most enduring success, taking off into the woods by afternoon in the company of his cute-as-a-button son Christopher Robin Milne (played by Will Tilston as a boy, and Alex Lawther as an adolescent), a.k.a. "Billy Moon", to build new worlds with the aid of the lad's ragbag teddy bear.

Cottrell Boyce and Vaughan ensure these woodland manoeuvres go a little deeper than the usual movie Eureka moments: their Pooh Corner becomes a haven, a Brigadoon-like safe space that opened up before the author for a few brief summers, only to disappear again as events elsewhere in Europe, and the Milnes' own relationship, began to darken. The best scenes in the film are those that isolate Gleeson and Tilston in the middle of nowhere, when a combination of time, nature and Billy Moon's bright-eyed purity comes to heal some of the author's scars. When Milne - commonly nicknamed Blue, with all the melancholia that infers - hears a buzzing, his mind immediately scrambles back to the flies descending upon the corpses littering the trenches; it's down to the boy to reassure him it's only bees, busy making honey (or hunny). "This is paradise," coos visiting illustrator Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore), looking out over the rolling, sundappled hills, and it's hard not to agree - but the filmmakers keep a close eye on the issues Milne had to work through out here so that his books might later be claimed as philosophical primers.

This, admittedly, leaves little for the women of the piece to do: after mother!, Goodbye Christopher Robin is the second autumn release to draw bleak conclusions about the place of the fairer sex in big country houses. One might generously say that Robbie was miscast, except that her presence on the roster presumably unlocked some funding during the preproduction process: clenched and blinking and working frightfully hard on her cutglass accent, she's entirely unable to overturn the script's unflattering conception of Daphne as a party girl who grew cold and brittle the moment another, dependent human being was sprung from her loins. By way of consolation, Kelly Macdonald offers up her usual warmth as the Milnes' beloved nanny Olive, but I can't be the only viewer who feels he's seen Macdonald cringing her way through nanny roles in eight out of her last ten features; you do wish the British film industry would get round to finishing its Boardwalk Empire boxsets and push more adventurous and substantial material her way. It becomes increasingly apparent the film needs its women to be there solely for them to go away, for the heart of this tale is an all-male double-act: the troubled, solitary man, and the boy who, by way of his very Christopher Robin-like sensitivity (nicely caught in the bowl-headed Tilston), teaches him how to be a father - and a father not just to this kid, but all kids.

Gleeson has that stiff ex-Army reserve ("old soldier, you know; I'll see to myself") down pat, but in his quieter moments, he lets us in on a latent anger at the state of things: it's all this Milne can do to pull himself together and write, in defiance of the cruelties and iniquities of a world that would paralyse us and stifle the imagination. (Dude should have stuck around for 2017.) It is cosy for stretches - such that it's something of a culture-shock to see Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag herself, show up in twin set and pearls as a Times reporter - but Cottrell Boyce and Vaughan withhold their most complex material until the closing stretch, as we learn the extent to which young Billy Moon was himself marked and traumatised by this formative moment. Curtis's adoption of a child's-eye view, which had earlier done so much to usher us between Ashdown and the fictional reality of the Hundred Acre Wood, suddenly looks like a poignant reminder of that innocence that gets knocked out of us with age. What starts out seeming to be a film about a boy whose worst fear is to be abandoned by the adults around him finally resolves itself into a quandary Milne knew all too well: is it not every bit as heartbreaking when a parent comes to be abandoned by their child?

Goodbye Christopher Robin is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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