This biopic about Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne may look like the usual lushly produced British period movie, but it’s far more original than expected. Avoiding pushy sentimentality, the filmmakers go for something that’s surprisingly grim, and the messiness of the people and situations makes it feel almost unnervingly real. It may be set in frightfully posh society, where cut-glass accents waft through sun-dappled woodlands, but there are gritty issues swirling through every scene.
It opens in 1941, as Alan and Daphne (Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie) receive word about their son Christopher Robin, who is off fighting in the war. This triggers a flurry of flashbacks for Alan, who is still suffering from trauma after his own service in World War I. He returned from the front determined to stop writing frothy comedies for the stage and screen, and sets out to be more politically aware. After his wife gives birth to Christopher Robin, whom they call Billy, they move to the Sussex countryside. Billy is mainly raised by his nanny Olive (Kelly MacDonald), but as a young boy (Will Tilston) he also spends time with his father in the woods, making up stories about his collection of stuffed animals. These would become the Winnie the Pooh books, and they change the family’s life as the public clamours to know the “real” Christopher Robin. So as Billy grows up (now Alex Lawther), he’s determined to be his own man.
Director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) cleverly weaves the flashbacks to create a vivid sense of Alan’s mindset. This of course triggers big emotions, but the filmmaker never wallows in them. Gleeson is superb in the role as a sensitive, creative man with a gentle twinkle in his eye and some very dark shadows deeper inside. In his privileged world, he’s not allowed to show emotion, but the actor lets us see inside. Robbie has an even trickier role as the matter-of-fact Daphne, a good-time girl who rejects anything serious (“No blubbing!”) but is clearly feeling everything very strongly.
As Billy, Tilston’s dimples steal the show, along with the young boy’s wide-eyed wonder at life. As the older Billy, the gifted Lawther adds a steely edge, haunted and unable to enjoy his childhood memories. In other words, the film refuses to merely relax and enjoy the sunny cheerfulness of the Winnie the Pooh stories. And that’s the point: they were written to inject a smile into a hurting post-war society. Which of course makes this a story we can easily identify with today.