Film and Book Reviews

Why Christopher Robin wanted to be Billy


By Beryl Rule

December 14 2017
A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) making an effort  to connect with his son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston).

To devotees of A.A. Milne’s children’s books about his son, Christopher Robin (or as he calls himself, Billy Moon), and the little boy’s favourite toy, Pooh Bear, it would appear that Christopher had an idyllic childhood. He was the all-wise leader of his stuffed animals, enjoying many adventures with them in the Hundred Acre Wood, yet always being safely home for tea. Tucked up cosily at night, he prayed for Mummy, Daddy and Nanny, who comprised his secure and loving family. Simon Curtis’ film tells a different story.

Whereas the Christopher Robin of Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner was very much in command of his world, the child of Goodbye Christopher Robin (Will Tilston) deprived of parental attention, relies on Nanny (Kelly Macdonald) for affection, and is desolate without her.

It is 1928 and Billy’s playwright father (Domhnall Gleeson) is still suffering from post-war trauma and unable to write, although he shuts himself away daily to do so. Remote and self-preoccupied, he moves the family to a house on the edge of Ashdown Forest, hoping the peaceful environment will help him to work. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) hates it and, unable to connect meaningfully with either her husband or her son, escapes to the bright lights of London. She does make intermittent attempts at being a parent to Billy, but can never sustain them for long.

Milne’s only successful relationship seems to be with his illustrator friend Ernest Shepherd (Stephen Campbell Moore), who also served in the war. With both Daphne and Nanny away, Milne has to spend more time with his son and begins making up stories about him and his toys. Shepherd comes to stay and makes sketches to go with the stories, and the books are born.

They bring international fame to Milne, but more to his son, and it is obvious the father feels some jealousy. He had never intended being known for fantasies about stuffed toys! Suddenly Billy’s life is filled with publicity appearances, interviews, photo shoots, even (which he passionately refuses to do) promoting mass produced copies of Pooh. His parents go along with the celebrity, but he comes to hate it, and rebels, protesting that Christopher Robin is a lie – it is Billy Moon who is real.

His father does stop writing the books, but packs the boy off to boarding school, where he is unmercifully bullied.

There is much darkness in Goodbye Christopher Robin, but there is light as well. Will Tilston’s performance is astounding: endearing, moving, intelligent, bewildered – it is impossible not to enter fully into Billy’s experience. The forest scenes are beautifully shot – a gold-dappled contrast to the bleak black and white of Milne’s war flashbacks and the noise and confusion of Billy’s reception by clamouring fans.

This is an absorbing film. Although its purpose is to dispel a myth, yet, ironically, the beauty of the forest scenes also brings to new life the imaginary world of those delightful books. But it is a pity that the film’s feel-good ending does not reflect biographical truth.