IN THE film Goodbye Christopher Robin (Cert. PG), the writer Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) returns from the First World War tortured by what has happened to him and others. In the course of the narrative, set mainly in the immediate peacetime era, Al Bowlly sings “A Man and his Dream”: “You always stir my imagination, sometimes it borders on fantasy.” One can see why this 1930s song is used, albeit anachronistically, because it is a little child who leads his traumatised father out of despair through exercising the imagination.
Ashdown Forest, East Sussex, becomes the Hundred Acre Wood, where tigers, kangaroos, piglets, donkeys, and one very special bear dwell. Milne’s socialite wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), tries her limited best to calm him, enlisting Plato by way of consolation: “If you don’t think about things, they don’t exist.” The rest of Goodbye Christopher Robin challenges that thesis. We need to entertain thoughts — positive, happy thoughts — and make them reality.
Frank Cottrell Boyce, co-writer of the screenplay, is well-known for his explorations into the world of imagination, especially that of children. I would be surprised if, as a practising Roman Catholic himself, he were unfamiliar with Abbé Michel Quoist’s Prayers of Life. One of them speaks of God’s desiring people to remain youngsters, because his likeness has not yet been dulled in them.
We see the lively-minded Christopher Robin Milne chiefly at the age of eight, when he is played by Will Tilston. It is a phenomenal performance when the pinnacle of his previous acting career was the donkey in his school’s Nativity play.
Imagination is defined as “forming a mental concept of what is not actually present to the senses”. Young Will’s Christopher Robin (aka Billy Moon) carries great conviction. Winnie the Pooh and the bear’s friends come alive not just for him: by being invited into this world, his father rediscovers childhood and can now travel hopefully.
Christopher has peopled his imagination with characters who display both the glories and frailities of humanity itself. A breakthrough moment comes after Milne overhears the nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), praying with the boy. Out of this arises the poem “Vespers” (“Hush, hush, whisper who dares”), written for the absent Daphne, who gets it published in the magazine Vanity Fair, to great acclaim.
The popularity of subsequent books of verses and Winnie the Pooh stories compromises the parents’ relationship with Christopher Robin. Predating Shirley Temple and other child stars, he’s a brand product, as caged as the London Zoo bear he visits.
The story develops into one of recovering childhood, that of the couple’s son, but also their own. They have gained the whole world, but, unless they become like little children again, they will never experience joy.
Milne, in reminding so many readers of what happiness could be, has, as it were, cast himself out of Eden in the process. There follows a long road back home, one requiring the parents to recapture that sense of awe and wonder which their son had invoked in them so long ago.