“Surely this is the happiest young boy on earth,” chirps the narrator of a newsreel.
He is speaking of Christopher Robin, the son of A. A. Milne, subject and first recipient of the stories of the Hundred Acre Wood. The newsreel narrator, like the adoring fans of Winnie the Pooh he describes, can perhaps be forgiven for not sensing the horrible cruelty in telling an unhappy child that he ought to be joyful. But then Christopher’s father, who knows all too well that the stories were forged as a desperate attempt to connect to his hurting, lonely child, drives the knife in just a little deeper: “You’re the luckiest boy in the world ...”
Bitterness is not that hard to capture in film. Bittersweetness is a more difficult quality to embody. Doing so effectively, however, is one of several difficult things that Goodbye Christopher Robin accomplishes, even if it struggles at times to figure out what and who its story is about.
Goodbye opens late in Milne’s life, after he has already written the Pooh books. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), receive a correspondence with some upsetting news. Distraught, he walks through the woods where the stories were born, but they provide no solace. The film then flashes back in time to one of Milne’s more traumatic memories of World War I.
The first act of the film revolves around Milne’s brittle condition after his war experience. He wants to write a book against war, and nobody thinks that is a good idea. Daphne sarcastically dismisses her husband’s crusade by saying: “You know what a book against war is like? It’s like a book against Wednesdays.” You may not like wars or Wednesdays, she argues, but they are sure to come around again.
Gleeson will no doubt earn all sorts of praise for finding the emotional center of a man whose trauma is evoked in broad terms by a very heavy-handed screenplay. He starts at every loud noise, gets sweaty palms, and when he hears bees buzzing, he imagines the flies he remembers surrounding the corpses of fallen soldiers. Despite a script that externalizes and vocalizes everything, the actor manages to convey that the author has an inner world, making Milne more than just the sum of his trauma.
The script’s lack of nuance in presenting Milne’s shell shock may cause some viewers to overlook Robbie’s exceptionally confident and important contribution. As portrayed by a lesser actress, Daphne might have come across as little more than a cruel caricature. In one particularly callous example, she blithely tells the new nanny (Kelly Macdonald) that the war at least had the silver lining of making lots of young, unmarried women available for employment, since so many potential mates were killed. She leaves her husband and son with the nanny and moves to London, telling Milne that she will only come back when he starts writing again.
But if there is one thing the screenplay does understand, it is that our worst actions are more often prompted by pain than simple malice. In Daphne’s defense, we see the wear and tear that caring for a person with depression can have on a caretaker. Most viewers, too, will probably understand that the wife doesn’t have much support in managing her own depression, much less in helping her husband deal with his.
In a key early scene, Milne finds the infant Christopher crying in a stroller at the bottom of the stairs. As he puts Christopher in the crib he comments weakly to his wife—whom he finds blankly staring out a window—that he hardly knows which end of the cradle to put the baby in. It’s unclear whether Daphne’s depression is episodic (postpartum) or ongoing—but the point is that she is a woman and so is expected to know how to bottle her disappointments and fears. “I gave birth to him,” she tells her husband of their son, “and he nearly killed me.” Robbie’s performance is almost enough to make one wish for a separate movie just about Daphne.