As actors reinvent and diversify their range to suit a project, it is very easy to lose sight of who they are as people; what characteristics of themselves they bring to a role. Domhnall Gleeson, who shines in Goodbye Christopher Robin, which opens this weekend brings his heavy Irish accent to bear. He can also be found playing Monty Schafer in Doug Liman’s American Made where he gives audiences a thick American accent.
I bring this up because the two films are worlds apart from each other, and yet they both exemplify what a terrific actor Gleeson is becoming. In Simon Curtis’ film, Gleeson plays playwright-cum-author A. A. Milne, who amongst his other contributions to modern literature, created Winnie-the-Pooh for his son Christopher Robin.
The script, written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan, focuses on the elder Milne’s use of comedy to combat his PTSD symptoms as result of his actions in World War I. Curtis (Woman in Gold) used this impetus to place us in the middle of Milne’s troubled emotional state. As a playwright, Milne found much success in the West End, but realized that he needed to do more to address his own personal demons.
At the same time, his wife, Daphne de Sélincourt (Margot Robbie) was used to being the life of the party and a part of the London high society. Cottrell-Boyce’s and Vaughan’s script makes it a point to emphasize this aspect of her character when Milne decides to finally move out of the limelight to write something of significance. In the meantime, A. A. and Daphne have a child, Christopher, or Billy Moon as he would be nick named by his parents.
The Milnes are far too busy with their socialite lives that they leave the child in the hands of his nanny. As Daphne seeks to be recognized in various circles, A. A. decides to use his time of solitude to write a book. The trouble is that he knows he needs to reunite England from its war effort. However, he realizes that it must be done without comedy. On his walks with Christopher, he learns about his son developing a genuine bond with him. He also learns about Christopher’s affection for a stuffed bear and the real-life bear, “Winnepeg.”
The beauty in the way Curtis shot the film is that we learn a lot about each of the characters and their situations through interpersonal exploration. Ben Smithard’s cinematography is key to this exploration. Unfortunately, we spend too much time exploring and by the time A. A. learns of the burden he has irrevocably placed on Christopher it is too late to mend the situation. Margot Robbie’s snarky performance shines but it wore its welcome despite her limited screen time.
The character of Young Christopher Robin is played by Will Tilston, who we see throughout the first and second acts of the film. Much like young Scott Schwartz in Richard Donner’s The Toy, Tilston convincingly plays the child who so desperately seeks his parents’ attention, and he is continuously ignored by all but his nanny. Here again, I think Curtis spent a bit too much time exploring this aspect of Christopher’s emotional state that by the time we get to the third act, where Alex Lawther shines as an older version of Christopher, his struggles as a teenaged boy aren’t as impactful. Lawther impressed us as a younger Alan Turing in 2014’s The Imitation Game. Here, his dramatic sensibilities compensate for Curtis’ over-extended sense of exploration.
Make no mistake. This is A. A. Milnes’s story, so the exploration is necessary and my criticisms notwithstanding, are appropriate. Gleeson’s performance shines in this respect. It’s just when the Milnes realize what they’ve done to their son, that moment is less impactful. However, it sets up the realization that the reason why Milnes began this chapter in his book was to find salvation from his own demons. This strengthened the last bit of the third act between father and son in a moment that audiences, I hope, won’t soon forget.
Now in theaters, Goodbye Christopher Robin is rated PG by the MPAA.