Goodbye Christopher Robin Pierces to the Heart of What it Means to be Family
- Debbie Holloway Contributing Writer
- 2017 13 Oct
Goodbye Christopher Robin, rated PG, directed by Simon Curtis, opened in limited theaters October 13, 2017, wider October 20. It runs 107 minutes and stars Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston and Alex Lawther. Watch the trailer for Goodbye Christopher Robin here.
Olive emerges from a quaint Sussex cottage to greet Mr. Milne, her former employer. She hails him cheerfully; they have a pleasant way with one another, for she spent many years as the nursemaid to his only child.
But Mr. Milne does not smile and does not return her greeting. He is solemn-faced, strained. And he is holding a telegram.
Almost immediately Olive gathers that the family has received a telegram regarding their son, Christopher Robin, who has been serving the British Army in the second World War. It takes but another beat for her to burst into uncontrollable sobs, covering her face with her hands, stammering out an apology.
"I'm so sorry," she gasps, her tear-drenched eyes meeting his in a moment of shared agony. "He's not even mine. He's yours."
This is one of the most powerful moments of Goodbye Christopher Robin, a film inspired by the family life and struggles of A.A. Milne, author of the beloved Winnie-the-Pooh books. The film is about many things: creativity, war, friendship, and fame, to name a few. But perhaps above all else, the film is about family.
Director Simon Curtis shares that this movie "is a love-letter to family." But what is family? Goodbye Christopher Robin has great power to challenge many assumptions we unthinkingly hold about what family means, and to spur us on to greater gratitude with how we view our families (whether born or chosen).
5 TOUGH-BUT-VALUABLE LIFE LESSONS FROM GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN
1. Fathers sometimes don’t know how to lead
Milne’s heart is full of love for his wife and son, but his own weaknesses and limitations often prevent him from being a strong leader. Providers are fragile humans too, prone to doubt and mistakes, and need a lot of support!
2. Mothers sometimes don't know how to love
While it’s clear Daphne adores her husband and son, she doesn't always know how to express it, struggling to reconcile her disdain for outward displays of affection with the frank emotions displayed by young children. Giving and receiving love is sometimes more complicated than we can anticipate.
3. It's all too easy to let down our children
It's the great terror of becoming a parent: What if I let them down, even while trying to do right by them? It's a sobering realization that all parents will let their children down in some way. The Milnes are another example of the inevitability of an imperfect family life, despite best intentions.
4. You can't change the past
Milne desperately wishes he could go back in time and prevent his son from becoming a celebrity - but he can't. Accepting the past is the only way forward.
5. Forgiveness takes work - but it can be done
Ultimately this is a tale of how redemption and forgiveness are possible through love, even after going through a lot, both internally and externally.
When I said, "My foot is slipping,"
your unfailing love, Lord, supported me (Psalm 94:18).
When Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) returns to London from The Great War, he is a changed man. Though his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) encourages him to dwell on happy things and pick up his career again, it is clear that he is suffering deeply from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He flinches at the sounds of champagne corks popping; he viscerally flashes back to the trenches when the spotlight in a dark theatre catches his eyes.
None of this is connected to his family, of course, but this is a hurt so big that it cannot help but creep into every corner of his life. For the most part, Milne is able to welcome the birth of his new son (Will Tilston) joyfully. But the monster lies in wait: will today be the day he snaps at the sound of a popping balloon? Will he respond too roughly if little Billy Moon tackles him, his war-trained reflexes taking over?
This fear, this deep, scarring pain, has been felt through the ages, and continues to be a struggle for many families of soldiers and veterans. While storybooks and movies might generally show us that "Father" is strong, capable, and always the leader, the reality is grittier and more complicated for many. We see a very vulnerable Milne in this telling, one who often doesn't know the right answer and must lean on his son for support and inspiration. As the psalmist writes in the passage above, sometimes the strong will slip and fall - sometimes the hurt will become too deep. But God offers help, in this case, through the friendship and love of a small little boy. That is sometimes what family looks like.
But Ruth said, "Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16).
The truest, strongest emotional bond in this film forms between Billy (as Alan and Daphne refer to Christopher Robin) and his nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald). "Nou," as Billy calls her, is one of many women who finds employment in the nursery of other women's homes after the War claims so many men.
The Milnes are in many ways the very caricature of a British family: no tears ("blubbing") allowed, few hugs, and plenty of cold shoulders. That is, of course, aside from Billy and Nou. She is the one who holds his hand, strokes his hair, and tucks him into bed. It is her name he calls out first thing in the morning, and her face he wants to see before he falls asleep.
While this distance between parents and child is sad in many ways to modern viewers, it's a stark reminder that sharing genes with someone has no impact on your ability to love them with your entire being. We see a similar affection and devotion in Olive that Ruth displays to her mother-in-law Naomi in the Bible. Even with much to lose, these women are willing to put themselves at great risk for the people that they love - their chosen family.
Olive and Billy Moon choose to regard one another as beloved family, even if they only spend a few years of his childhood together. And you get the sense from watching Olive that she feels largely at peace about her time with the Milnes. On the other hand, regret is etched many places in the faces of Alan and Daphne Milne as their son grows older and more distant from them.
They should have listened to him better, it's easy to think, as the Milnes navigate the unexpected success of the Pooh books. They should have spent more time with him. They should have protected him from all that fame and notoriety that he was too young to handle.
But mistakes are made, and it's easy to critique fiction, or to criticize true events with the perspective of hindsight. Goodbye Christopher Robin invites us to instead take this same magnifying glass to our own families and loved ones.
Who are we giving ear to, in our lives? Is it whoever happens to be loudest, or is it the one who needs us most?
What do our families look like - biological and chosen - and how can we hold onto them each day with generosity and love?
A thoughtful viewing of Goodbye Christopher Robin is a lovely way to provoke us into asking such questions and possibly into avoiding regrets of our own.
Debbie Holloway is a storyteller, creator, critic and advocate having adventures in Brooklyn, New York.
Publication date: October 13, 2017
Image Courtesy: ©FoxSearchlight