One of the most famous children’s characters of all time, the honey-stealing bear Winnie-the-Pooh is beloved the world over. Far less is known about his creator, A.A. Milne, whose life was shaped by trauma in the trenches and drama on the home front: Milne had difficult relationships with his wife, Daphne, and son Christopher Robin, the inspiration for Pooh’s boyhood friend
Scripted by Simon Vaughan and Frank Cottrell Boyce – the latter’s past biopics include the out-there Tony Wilson story 24 Hour Party People and the more conventional Jacqueline du Pré tale Hilary and Jackie – Goodbye Christopher Robin begins with Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) returning from World War 1 to London high society to join his spirited spouse, Daphne (Margot Robbie).
Soon pregnant, Daphne endures a difficult birth with Christopher Robin, whom they nickname Billy Moon. As Billy (Will Tilston) gets older, his father – in search of tranquillity – moves the family to the Sussex countryside. While Billy settles in nicely with the help of family nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), Daphne’s adjustment to this rural retreat is anything but smooth.
Not that Milne notices: still shell-shocked by his wartime experiences, he resolves to write an anti-war piece. But with Daphne taking an extended trip to London, abandoning her duties to party with whomever she can, the frustrated author is left to bond with Billy, whose strongest emotional ties are to Olive.
Amid this, the toy bear given to Billy by his parents – not forgetting the donkey Eeyore, the tiger named Tigger and others – become inspirations for Milne to create his 1926 collection of short stories Winnie-The-Pooh, featuring illustrations by his friend Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore), which becomes a bestseller.
Directed by Simon Curtis (), the film’s emotional grist arrives as Billy becomes an unwitting celebrity. With the boy who inspired Christopher Robin now an unfortunate PR tool, Billy’s search for his own identity is confused with that of Pooh’s fictional friend. Only as he becomes a young man (Alex Lawther) does this childhood trauma become clear.
Curtis’ work isn’t perfect. Milne’s PTSD is poorly represented, notably in the scene where he and Billy are in the woods and buzzing insects bring back memories of bombs. But a restrained Gleeson does his best playing a man who isn’t easy to like. Robbie, with a faultless English accent, and the ever-reliable Macdonald, are also credible, helping build towards a moving final chapter.