They say you should never look in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant…and in some ways that applies to your favorite stories as well. There is practically no child that hasn’t grown up knowing Winnie the Pooh. There is a magic to that silly old bear. But, having grown up, you do need to ask yourself if you want to know what the truth, real story, and inspiration were behind the wondrous Hundred Acre Wood. As several of the biographies of the last decade or so highlight, the life of the Milnes wasn’t storybook by any stretch.
But writers Frank Cottrell Boyce (Revengers Tragedy) and first-timer Simon Vaughan did a good job of distilling Robin’s story even while telling it primarily from his father’s point of view. That approach allowed them to navigate all aspects of the family, though the intent of the focus is on Robin’s experience. The tale is very layered and complex, often in subtle ways. It tackles class, war, parenthood, child rearing, love, show business in various forms, art, and the creative process, not just the specific genesis of Pooh and his friends. Probably not the story you imagine.
Will Tilston, in his first major role as Christopher Robin, was a brilliant bit of casting. While his acting may not be quite as polished as the rest of the cast, director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) elicited a great performance that struck just the right tone for his challenged childhood. Alex Lawther (The End of the F**ing World) then takes that setup as the older Robin and pays it off rather well.
But while the story is about Christopher, it is primarily told from the adult point of view. Domhnall Gleeson (mother!) delivers a powerful and sympathetic performance as A.A. Milne. Like many men (for instance Tolkien) returning from WWI, he struggled in near silence to recover. How that affected his writing is a critical part of the history. As his mother, Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) walks a very odd path of love and motherhood that is particular to that era and at that strata. There is love there, but of a particular kind. It is Kelly Macdonald (T2: Trainspotting) that Robin recognizes as the main source of intimacy in his life, and Macdonald provides a good target for it. It isn’t a new type of performance for her, but rather a comfortable and recognizable character delivered with expertise.
A side-effect of the scope of the story is that the movie is a little challenging to follow emotionally. The focus is split between the generations. That isn’t ultimately a bad thing, but it dilutes the result through much of the film, even as it pays it all off by the end. Also, it wasn’t helped by the aging make-up toward the end of the movie which really fails and broke the reality of the moments for me.
I started this write-up with a warning, which I’ll reiterate. If you want to keep the pure magic of the stories you know, you don’t want to see this film. The film has its own magic and, certainly, respects the phenomena that is the stories that are quickly approaching their first century in print. But it also exposes the reality of a difficult childhood and fumbled parenting. On a pure movie level, the acting and directing are solid, however, so I certainly recommend it if you aren’t worried about seeing how the meal was made.