Names are endowed with unusual power in “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” a honey-hued but brittle-edged drama about the English author A.A. Milne and the emotional price he paid for his most enduring literary creation. Here and there we glean a few charming insights into Milne’s methods of naming his characters: why “Eeyore” is perfect for a donkey, why “Tigger” is preferable to “Tiger” and, most intriguingly, how a Bear of Very Little Brain could only be called “Winnie-the-Pooh.”
For his part, Alan Alexander Milne (played by Domhnall Gleeson) was known by those closest to him as “Blue,” apparently due to his eye color, though also perhaps in reference to his perpetually glum mood. The name of his son, Christopher Robin, soon became known to readers all over the world, though his parents always referred to him by his boyhood nickname, “Billy Moon.” In using these aliases, the film bolsters its claim to an intimate knowledge of the Milnes’ home life — a life that is rendered all too tastefully here, though also with a dollop of bitterness that cuts nicely through the treacle.
Directed with a smooth if heavy hand by Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn,” “Woman in Gold”) from a script by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is the latest period tearjerker to take up the curious case history of a beloved children’s author. Considering such past examples of the form as “Saving Mr. Banks” and “Finding Neverland,” this is a subgenre that clearly likes its gerunds; an alternate title for the new film might have been “Torturing Christopher Robin.”
Curtis’ film begins and ends in 1941 but mainly unfolds during the interwar years. Milne, a celebrated London writer deeply scarred by his experiences fighting in World War I, longs to write something more serious and profound than the amusing plays and stories on which he has built his reputation. And so he retreats to the Sussex countryside with his spirited socialite wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), and their sweet, impressionable Billy Moon (Will Tilston, a natural-born charmer).
Also joining them is their loving nanny, Olive (the always excellent Kelly Macdonald), who lavishes the boy with the affection he receives only occasionally from his distant, inattentive parents. Despite all the golden-afternoon lighting, the churningly sentimental music and the smothering atmosphere of tweed, by far the most compelling element of “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is its gently stinging critique of this not-uncommon state of domestic affairs.
Daphne may shower her son with stuffed animals and give them funny voices to boot, but mostly she seems keen on keeping him out of the way, so as not to disturb his father’s work. Ironically, then, it’s during a precious few days of father-son bonding — Olive is away on a family matter, and a marital spat has sent Daphne fleeing to London — that Milne finds his greatest inspiration.
Left to their own devices, Blue and Billy Moon overcome their initial awkwardness by taking lovely walks through the nearby forest, a kind of proto-Hundred Acre Wood. There’s a charming sequence in which they throw a dinner party for themselves and all those stuffed animals. Before long Milne is committing Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore and Christopher Robin himself to the page, complete with illustrations by his friend E.H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore). He’s unaware that he will soon have a runaway literary sensation and, thanks to hordes of photographers and screaming fans, a none-too-happy child on his hands.
In 2014, “Winnie-the-Pooh,” Milne’s first volume of short stories about the beloved bear, topped the BBC’s poll of favorite children’s books, beating out “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “The Hobbit,” among others. Widely loved as it may be, however, the Pooh oeuvre (Poohvre?) has also had its share of non-fans, including, for a spell, Christopher Robin Milne himself. Reviewing “The House at Pooh Corner” for the New Yorker in 1928, the critic Dorothy Parker took a delicious stab at Milne’s fanciful play with the English language, writing that she “fwowed up” more than once while reading it.
You won’t necessarily fwow up at “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” though you may be disappointed if you go in expecting, say, a realistic portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder or a nuanced understanding of how a lasting work of art is made. But if you do see the movie, by all means surrender to its portrait of an earlier era of toxic celebrity culture, and also to the bracing nastiness of the central performances. Gleeson plays Milne as a bit of a prig, capable of lowering the room temperature several degrees with his joylessly acerbic wit, and Robbie, as the self-absorbed Daphne, is even more boldly unsympathetic.
Husband and wife often seem dreadfully mismatched on-screen, but that only compounds our sense of their son’s tragedy — a tragedy that seems complete when Billy Moon grows up, and the adorable Tilston is replaced on-screen by a sullen Alex Lawther. Dreadful as it must be to be exploited by one’s own parents, Lawther is not well served by his character’s tendency toward self-righteous bitterness. He can’t keep “Goodbye Christopher Robin” from quickly crossing the line into good riddance.
‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’
Rating: PG, for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief language
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles