Irish actor Domnhall Gleeson is all the rage these days. You saw him in Ex Machina, Brooklyn, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You'll recognize the ginger locks, the gangly frame, the timid lips. You may know that he's the son of the much girthier Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, and you'll no doubt recall your introduction to him: as Bill Weasley in the final installments of the Harry Potter films. Gleeson now assumes the role of British writer A.A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, in Goodbye Christopher Robin, which opens Friday at select theaters.
Early in the film, Milne and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) move to the English countryside with their young son Christopher Robin, whom they call Billy Moon. Milne is haunted by memories of the First World War and seeks the peace and quiet of cottage life so that he might continue writing plays. Daphne, a socialite, longs to return to London and finally does, promising her husband that she won't return until he bucks up and puts pen to paper. Alone with his son, then, Milne invents the fictional world that would become the Hundred Acre Wood and the famed characters still beloved today: Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet, Kanga.
To the Milnes' surprise and delight, the Winnie the Pooh stories become national bestsellers. The whimsical children's tales help heal the national wounds inflicted by the Great War, help dry the tears of children missing their fathers, of mothers missing their sons. But as an unwanted side effect, young Billy Moon --- the real-life Christopher Robin! – becomes a national celebrity. He is soon carted around the country for live radio interviews, photoshoots and appearances at toy stores. The film presents the Milnes as a kind of precursor to the Kardashians, though an unhappy one. Milne is at times jealous of his son, and Billy grows resentful of the father who betrayed him.
In substance and in style, Goodbye Christopher Robin is easy to compare to 2004's Finding Neverland, another sentimental literary origin story. Like that film, this one stars a young boy forced to grow up too quickly in ways he'd rather not. Christopher Robin, played by Will Tilston, has a perfect face. It arches in anger and creases in laughter at a moment's notice. In a heartrending scene, the 8-year-old Billy Moon pleads with his nanny (Kelly Macdonald) to marry him because he's terrified that she'll abandon him, just as his parents have.
(Incidentally, Marc Forster, the director of Finding Neverland, has his own Christopher Robin film coming out in 2018, starring Ewen McGregor as the boy all grown up.)
Macdonald (the voice of Merida in Pixar's Brave) is in fact the star of the show. As Christopher Robin's nanny, she is closer to him than anyone and often seems to be the only one who truly loves him. She is the only one, at any rate, who bothers to notice what fame has done to him. Still, she gets no respect from Daphne, who has the audacity to question her loyalty in the film's tensest scene.
Daphne makes no secret of the fact that she'd always hoped her son would have been a girl. Boys, she glumly reports, grow up and go off to war. And sure enough, Christopher Robin comes of age just in time for World War II. As he boards the train headed for the front – at last, on his own terms – the Hundred Acre Wood and the childhood that produced it, like all childhoods, seem fleeting and far off indeed.