Film: Goodbye Christopher Robin

David Gritten / 27 September 2017

The story of how fame affected the creator of Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne, and his son, makes for poignant viewing.

These days we’re only too aware of the pitfalls and pressures that fame can bring – especially when it happens to younger people. Dozens of pop idols, movie stars, catwalk models and footballers have found life too difficult in a permanent spotlight.

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But this is no new phenomenon. It was equally true 90 years ago, when A.A. Milne wrote the children’s books Winnie the Pooh and House at Pooh Corner, featuring a young boy named Christopher Robin, after his own son – a collection of animal characters inspired by the boy’s stuffed animals (notably Pooh Bear) and their idyllic adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood.

The public went mad for the stories and wanted to see the boy (and his stuffed bear) for themselves, in person. He became a global celebrity, but soon came to dread his fame and the unsettling degree of exposure that came with it. Worse still, it turned the boy against his father, who he felt had allowed it to happen.

All this is the subject of an intriguing new film called Goodbye Christopher Robin, which recounts these events and provides some context for them. A.A. Milne, played in the film by Domhnall Gleeson, is portrayed as a man who, having served in the First World War, was plagued by post-traumatic stress. It led him to leave his home in London for a more tranquil life in the East Sussex countryside. Milne dreaded the prospect of Christopher Robin ever undergoing such an experience; he seemed to want him to stay an innocent child.

In the film, the dynamics of the family are complex. Milne’s ambitious wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) helped get the Christopher Robin stories published. But she had little time for the countryside, and often left her husband and son there to enjoy her social life in London.

Christopher Robin’s nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) comes across as the person he loved most in the world. If his mother was often absent and his father contained his demons by never letting his emotions show, Olive was always there to comfort the little boy. (Young Will Tilston plays the title role, and looks exactly right as the innocent Christopher Robin.)     

The film’s director Simon Curtis was intrigued by Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script. “It touched on so many issues... it’s about being a parent and having children and then having to let them go. It’s about England between the wars, which was such a momentous time. And it’s also about the act of creation, writing of one of the most beloved stories ever written.”

For his part, Boyce describes A.A. Milne as ‘a cracking writer’: “This is a great story about success and its consequences, which is always an interesting subject. A.A. Milne was phenomenally and unexpectedly successful, which became troubling for him and particularly for his son. We rarely tell stories about how success can make life very difficult.”

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