Talking Pictures: Timeless

Film director Simon Curtis on the appeal of ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’

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The ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ books are, according to ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ director Simon Curtis, “a love letter to childhood, and playing and imagination.”

In mid-October, the Mill Valley Film Festival hosted an afternoon screening of the British drama Goodbye Christopher Robin. It’s the story of how author A.A. Milne came to write the Winnie-the-Pooh books, and their impact on Milne’s son, Christopher (nicknamed Billy Moon), on whose real-life toys the stories were based. The day of the screening, the theater was packed with moviegoers, split roughly between fans of Winnie-the-Pooh, fans of the film’s director, Simon Curtis (1999’s David Copperfield, 2011’s My Week with Marilyn, 2015’s Woman in Gold) and fans of movies that seem, on the surface, to be lighter than the super-serious standard fare served up at most film festivals.

The Pooh and Curtis fans were not disappointed. Those expecting a frothy light-hearted fable of some sort, however, were stunned to discover that Goodbye Christopher Robin is serious enough and solemn enough, disconcerting and melancholy enough, to satisfy the inclinations of any seasoned film festival programmer. It’s also absolutely, achingly lovely.

After a standing ovation, Curtis took the stage for a brisk Q&A with the slightly shaken audience. “I’d like to start off by saying that we had the New York premiere of the film just two days ago, at the main branch of the New York Library, where the real-life Christopher Robin’s actual toys are on permanent display,” Curtis said. “It was a wonderful place for that, and a reminder of what an amazing thing the Winnie the Pooh stories are. That Daphne Milne, this little boy’s mother, would buy a toy bear and a donkey and a piglet to give to him … that was [what] kicked off this whole amazing thing. It’s remarkable.”

Asked about the enduring popularity of the Pooh stories, more than 100 years after they were first published, Curtis surmised that the tales filled a need for readers at the time they first appeared—not long after the great international shell shock of World War I—and that they continue to fill that same need today.

“There’s an innocence and sweetness and beauty in them,” he said. “The books are a love letter to childhood, and playing and imagination. I think that we’re now in the sixth generation of children whose parents can’t wait to read these stories to them. As a parent myself, I have to say thank you to A.A. Milne for making these stories so short, wholly unlike the Harry Potter books, which just go on and on and on.”

Curtis smiled when asked why the Pooh stories are as appealing to the old as to the young. “Whatever age you are, you seem to find something different in them,” he said. “There’s a kind of wisdom in the stories that hits you at any and every age. It’s part of the genius of the Pooh books.”

In the film, Billy Moon’s father (Domhnall Gleeson) is so preoccupied with writing, and his mother (Margot Robbie) so uninterested in actually being a mother, that most of the boy’s early care comes from his nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), from whom he learns love, and eventually, heartbreak. It’s in response to that early loss that the real-life Milne began to write the Pooh stories, as a way to bond, if somewhat awkwardly, with the son he’s been too busy to learn very much about.

“That’s sort of the way it was with English writers of a certain generation,” Curtis pointed out. “I’m not the first to make this observation, but it’s true that some of the greatest books of English literature were written by absolute geniuses, who knew how to create these fantastic tales, but didn’t know how to say I love you to their children. It’s very typical of a certain class, at that time, that a couple would have a baby and then just hand it over to their nanny.  For so many English men, their first great love—their only great love—was their nanny.

The performance of young Will Tilston as the 8-year-old Christopher Robin/Billy Moon has earned raves from critics and audiences. “It was quite something,” Curtis said of that casting. “A stroke of luck, that. I’m happy to say it’s not the first stroke of luck I’ve had in that area. The last time I cast a young person who’d never acted before, it was Daniel Radcliffe in David Copperfield. So, you know, that gave me some extra confidence.”

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