'Goodbye Christopher Robin': This Winnie the Pooh origin story has too much Eeyore in it for its own good

If the Oscar went to the movie with the most tweed (and at times I think it has), Goodbye Christopher Robin would win hands down.

Star Domhnall Gleeson wears a pair of Roaring Twenties tweed trousers that hitch somewhere around his armpits. He’s got a tweed vest over that, a tweed jacket on top, and judging by the look on his face, tweed underpants.

He dons the itchy outfit to play A.A. Milne, a shell-shocked World War I vet who returns to London after combat and finds he can no longer write superficial West End comedies. So, to regain his sanity and write an Important War Book, he retires to his estate in the country.

There, things go badly. He has writer’s block, his impatient socialite wife (Margot Robbie) hightails it back to the city, and lonely Milne is left to entertain his son (Will Tilston). This he does by inventing a menagerie of animal characters that would form the basis for the Winnie the Pooh canon.

So far, so awards-season predictable. A posh, period, Anglophilic celebration of the creative process, taking up where Finding Neverland and other polite dramas of similar ilk left off (and where the upcoming Dickens saga The Man Who Invented Christmas threatens to go).

Goodbye Christopher Robin, though, takes a turn, casting the Milnes as rotten parents — alternately indifferent and exploitative. As the Pooh books became an international phenomenon, the limelight-loving Mrs. Milne returns to supervise the affairs of son Billy (his family only used his actual name, Christopher Robin, for the character), who is now the center of a vast and clamorous global fan club.

She’s scheduling interviews and photos and public appearances, running little Billy ragged, and brushing aside his pleas for privacy and normalcy. Mr. Milne observes helplessly, looking as if  he’d rather charge another German machine gun nest than engage with his wife on this matter.

The child’s only advocate is the nanny — Kelly Macdonald in a typically empathetic and quietly nervy performance (if Macdonald could stand up to Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, she can handle this lady).

I give Goodbye Christopher Robin credit for presenting audiences with a Pooh origins story they might not want to see, but having settled on this subject, the movie seems uncertain how to proceed. Key players remain maddeningly passive — Gleeson isn’t the most dynamic of actors to begin with, and his Milne is a mumbling milquetoast, moping about with his hands in his pockets, as if work-shopping Eeyore.

And poor little Tilston, who plays Billy, is stranded on screen for far too long, left to dazzle us with his range of exactly two facial expression — frozen happiness, frozen disappointment.

Also, that haircut.

I know it’s part of the Pooh brand, known to fans from the E.H. Shepard illustrations,  but in the intervening century, cinema has co-opted the look.

Every time I looked at Tilston and his mop, I heard a choir of satanists. Have these people never seen The Omen?

MOVIES

Goodbye Christopher Robin

  • Directed by Simon Curtis. With Margot Robbie, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Tilston, Stephen Campbell Moore and Kelly Macdonald. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
    • Parents guide: PG-13.

  • Running time: 1 hour, 47 mins.

  • Playing at: Ritz Five, AMC Voorhees.