“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.
The film’s difficulties with focus and having too much story to tell are also on display in the third act, where Christopher’s transitions from confused child to bitter young adult to a more pensive and understanding adult are too rushed to wield the emotional impact they really should have. It’s mildly disappointing that the film takes its sweet time showing us Christopher’s difficult childhood while only alluding via dialogue to the experience(s) that help him let go of his bitterness about it.
But while the film is uneven, when it does connect, it usually does so powerfully. The moment when Milne finally lets down his English reserve and playfully explains to his adolescent son why he shouldn’t hold his knife and fork a certain way is surprisingly tender, as well as funny. Milne reading an excerpt of his poem “Disobedience” over a fleeting image of the dancing Daphne is similarly poignant.
Because it deals with the origins of a beloved childhood literary work, Goodbye Christopher Robin will most likely draw some comparisons to the Oscar-nominated Finding Neverland. A better comparison might be the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. Both that film and Goodbye ask the audience whether we love our artists, tortured souls and all, or only the art they leave for us. Both films also depict moments of grace and healing that allow us to continue to cherish the art of our own childhood even as we grieve the circumstances that we may not have been aware helped forge it.
Goodbye Christopher Robin was released in the United Kingdom before the United States, and in his negative review for The Sunday Times, Tom Shone says the film “might has well have been written by Eeyore.” That’s perhaps more of a compliment than he intended. Long before Pixar’s Inside Out reminded us that Joy can’t function without Sadness, Milne’s melancholy but resilient donkey was just about the only avatar that sad kids had. In one famous literary exchange, Pooh asks Eeyore what is the matter, and the donkey replies: "Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can't all, and some of us don't. That's all there is to it." What is it, Pooh asks, that not all of us can do? "Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush."
Let us thank God for those who are scarred by trauma and who struggle with depression, whether they be talking donkeys, shell-shocked soldiers, burnt-out caregivers, or lonely children. Sadness, films like Goodbye remind us, can be an appropriate response of a tender heart made for joy but confronted with a fallen and broken world. That sadness can give root to the weeds of bitterness and despair; it can also, however, be transformed through love and imagination into a source of comfort and joy for all those who are able and willing to receive it as such.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is a professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.