Many are familiar with the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh, but few realise they’re based on the true adventures of Christopher Robin, son of British author A. A. Milne, and his beloved stuffed animals. Even fewer people know how tragic the backstory became.
Robin’s relationship with his father, a soldier-turned-pacifist, soured significantly as the children’s books rocketed to fame in the mid-1920s, forcing Robin into a life of unwanted celebrity. He lost his childhood and was bullied at boarding school. So while the classical tales delivered joy to millions, they brought only heartache to the young boy at the centre.
The relationship between Robin and Milne — and with mother Daphne — never recovered. But Goodbye Christopher Robin, a new film based on the trio, doesn’t dwell on this bleak outcome for too long.
On screen, we witness Milne struggling with PTSD and bonding with his son, who develops a strong attachment to his nanny, Olive. We clearly see the fractured relationship between Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), Daphne Milne (Margot Robbie) and Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), but the film doesn’t commit itself fully to their tragedy, weaving in a few lighter insights along the way.
Director Simon Curtis tells Gulf News tabloid! what inspired his vision for the film — and why Winnie-the-Pooh was able to uplift a nation after the First World War, letting some light seep through the cracks.
We spend quite a bit of time with this one family during Goodbye Christopher Robin. How did you want to tackle that?
It was the unknown story of the family at the time they created Winnie-the-Pooh. But it was more a story of a family — and a family that had been traumatised by World War I — recovering from that trauma. That was one of the things that most interested me.
There were some fantastical elements in the film, for instance, the dreamy weather changes. Is that something you always wanted to do with it?
It’s about the power of the imagination. You don’t have to know or even love Winnie-the-Pooh to enjoy the film. And I was delighted that it won the audience award at the Dubai International Film Festival recently, because audiences who see it do love it. But it’s not about Winnie-the-Pooh. At the heart of the film is the father and son sort of falling in love with each other. Every father who’s seen the film has been very moved by it, because it does something very few films do — it tackles the agony and ecstasy of being a parent.
Tell us a little bit about the cast. You have Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie and of course Will. What was it like to work with that cast, and what did they bring to these roles?
Certainly in the case of Domhnall and Margot, I was very lucky to be able to work with two of the best young actors in the world. They’re not only brilliant actors, but they’re very, very smart. So they were able to understand that this is a portrait of parenting, not like a modern parent, but a parent from England between the World Wars, where parents behaved in a different way. It was terrifying casting a nine-year-old boy in such a big part; we really lucked out with Will. He was a fantastic actor, and a fantastic kid. We loved working with him.
What is the biggest challenge working on a project like this?
I think it is getting three young people to become an Edwardian English family, with a very short amount of rehearsal. I was very lucky with Domhnall, Margot and Will because they bonded together very quickly.
One of the interesting things about the film is realising just how many people loved Winnie-the-Pooh, and how fanatical they were about it.
It became like a modern phenomenon. Christopher Robin was almost the first-ever child celebrity, and to be fair to the Milne parents, they could not have predicted the journey they would go on. It was an unprecedented voyage into the unknown.
Margot Robbie’s character, Daphne, comes off as the villain of the film. Was that deliberate, or was that how she was written?
No, I wouldn’t say that. I think she’s just a complicated, unusual version of a mother. In some ways, she’s the hero of the movie, because she’s the one who buys the animals that inspire them to create the stories, and she’s the one who invents the voices. She’s not a loving mother to modern eyes, but she was in her own way, a woman of that class, of that time, a very typical mother.
I’m curious how familiar you were with the story of A. A. Milne and how faithful you wanted to be to the true events.
I wasn’t that familiar with it, actually, no. But obviously, when you do films — and I’ve done a few of them — that are based in recent history, you have to be as accurate as you possibly can be, but you also have a responsibility to make an entertaining film.
As far as I understand, Christopher Robin never mended his relationship with his parents in real life. But the film ends on a hopeful note. Was that something you and the writer consciously wanted to do?
That was the idea. Because obviously, as you already say, Christopher Robin had a complicated relationship with his parents. But it wasn’t all bad. There was a lot of love and fun and love along the way, too.
What kind of feedback did you have for the writers when you first read the script?
I can’t really remember to be perfectly honest, but I always liked the script and it was so rich and about so many things that we’re dealing with in our modern world. There’s child celebrity, there’s coping with PTSD. There were so many things that went above and beyond the inside story of Winnie-the-Pooh.
Alan Milne’s PTSD was a major element in the film. How did you go about making that representation as accurate as possible?
We had an expert in PTSD, who is very, very helpful to the actors and I. Actually, I was very proud where, in one of the screenings in America, a Vietnam vet came up to me to say it was the most accurate portrayal of PTSD he had ever seen.
Do you feel like Goodbye Christopher Robin is a universal story that travels well?
I think so. Because parenting is a worldwide phenomenon, obviously, and not everyone’s a parent, but everyone is a child. It speaks to the glorious childhood memories we all hopefully have. It’s not necessarily one for very young ages, but children at nine or ten years old — the age that Will [who plays Christopher] is — enjoy it.
You mentioned that this did win the People’s Choice Award at Dubai International Film Festival last year. So why would you say UAE viewers should go out and watch this movie?
Because it’s a moving and entertaining story of a family that overcomes some difficulties. To those expats there, it’s an idyllic England that they’ll see on the screen.
Don’t miss it!
Goodbye Christopher Robin is out now in the UAE.