Some movies have such a strong narrative hook, or deal with subjects that have such a claim on our common memories, that it doesn’t matter if they’re not very good. “Goodbye Christopher Robin” qualifies: A stuffy, treacly, overproduced slab of High British twaddle, it nevertheless reduced most of a recent preview audience to what the film itself calls “blubbing.” Even a flinthearted movie critic could be seen to dab his eyes from time to time.
Why? Because it’s the story behind “Winnie-the-Pooh,” of course, and the absolutely miserable childhood caused by the world’s adoration of Edward the Bear and his boy companion.
There was a real Christopher Robin, son of author A.A. Milne, but the father (played by Domhnall Gleeson in the movie) was called Alan by his friends and “Blue” by his family, and the boy (newcomer Will Tilston) preferred to go by Billy Moon. The starchy, upper-class milieu painted by “Goodbye Christopher Robin” presents a painfully repressed post-WWI England in which emotions are squeezed into twee nicknames all around. The child’s beloved Irish nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), was called “Nou.” His mother Daphne (Margot Robbie) was apparently the only person in the entire United Kingdom to not have a nickname, which tells you everything the movie wants us to know about her.
Milne is a successful playwright of light drawing-room comedies whose war experiences have reduced him to a wreck; the film nods sympathetically at a generation of young men suffering from what we now call PTSD, including Milne’s friend, the illustrator Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore). Robbie plays Daphne Milne as a shallow former party girl — one of 1920s England’s “bright young things” — who doesn’t have time for either children or her husband’s glooms, and when she leaves the two for a spell in London, father and son are forced to spend time together.
From their sojourns in the woods near their East Sussex home came the stories in “Winnie-the-Pooh” and “The House at Pooh Corner,” based on the boy’s toys. The film cutely dramatizes as well the inspirations for the books of verse “When We Were Very Young” and “Now We Are Six.” Between shy, shell-shocked Alan and bowl-cut little Christopher grows a secret fantasy world that is memorialized in print and then exploited in life.
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” is divided in two: the fragile innocence of the creation and the stressful aftermath, as the boy is forced to “play” Christopher Robin at publicity events that eventually swallow his childhood. (In between is a rushed montage detailing how the books came to be: Four years elapse in two poorly edited minutes.) Christopher pouts because he’s not allowed to be a normal kid, the elder Milne sulks because the world only wants more children’s fiction, and Daphne glows in her son’s reflected glory — she’s the villain, if only the film would come out and admit it. (In real life, mother and son never spoke after A.A. Milne died in 1956.)
But director Simon Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn,” “Woman in Gold”) only knows how to turn out concoctions in which coffee-table art direction wins out over painful emotions. “Goodbye Christopher Robin” does’t take place in England but rather in Miramax England, that mythical, sun-dappled country where every tea-cozy is perfectly placed and the stiff upper lips never, ever crack.
It’s to the movie’s credit that they occasionally threaten to, but Curtis and company beat the feelings back time and again, so nervous are they that the lid might blow and the characters say what they think. (That task falls to the lower-class Irish nanny, because isn’t that what she’s paid for?) When Robbie’s Daphne faces a particularly cruel test and she responds, “Yes, well, I think it’s time to pot my geraniums,” even a tender-hearted viewer might suppress a giggle.
Gleeson, who’s been a very busy actor of late, plays the elder Milne as emotionally constipated to the point of dullness. Robbie is, sad to say, out of her league and unable to make sense of her character’s contradictions. Both could have used a stronger director (not to mention a less heavy hand on the make-up; Gleeson has been slapped with enough pancake to open up an IHOP).
Our sympathies thus fall to the boy and to the young actor playing him. Tilston is adorable but luckily no one has told him that yet, so he’s direct and unmannered and occasionally as unpleasant as actual children sometimes are. (Alex Lawther plays Christopher at 18, when he finally gets to tell the old man off in a speech that feels both dramatically satisfying and much too pat.)
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” works in spite of itself, because it understands what Milne’s creation meant to him and to a post-war world and to every child and parent since: a place forever innocent and forever England. And only one boy had to be sacrificed to make it so. The movie doesn’t quite dare to call this a tragedy, but it was.
GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN
Directed by Simon Curtis. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Simon Vaughan. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Will Tilston, Kelly Macdonald, Alex Lawther. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 107 minutes. PG (thematic elements, some bullying, war images, brief language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.