A boy and his bear

christopher-robin-1

US three. Billy Moon (aka Christopher Robin) played by Will Tilston with AA Milne, his dad, played by Domhnall Gleeson. Photograph courtesy http://www.filminquiry.com

IT TAKES A special kind of perspective and balance to be able to tell a story involving a child as adorable and articulate as young Will Tilston, without ramping up the cute factor and drowning in saccharine. Simon Curtis, director of Goodbye Christopher Robin achieves this significantly well, offering a sense of balance into a story that is as much about a bear named Winnie the Pooh, as it is about shell shock and the horror of fame, as it is about the way in which Edwardian society was so replete with euphemism that empathy was tossed by the wayside.

This film tells the story of the first children’s great classic in English literature which touched a nerve of real values for all children and became the world’s most popular classic for young readers. It presents Tilston as the five or six year old Christopher Robin opposite his dad played by Domhnall Gleeson who is weighed down with the horror of his World War One experience. The child articulates empathy in a way that gives the relationship between father and son the kind of authentic texture that is simply beautiful.

The child is also exposed to a mother played by Margot Robbie, who is almost a caricature of the classic stiff-upper-lip young woman whose everything is described in euphemism and who has no tolerance for anything that might digress and spill over, emotionally. It is the maid, Olive (Kelly Macdonald) who is capable of getting down to the level of this be-smocked tousle-haired child to give him succour and to protect him from the vagaries of becoming the boy whose name is on the lips of everyone.

The film focuses in great detail on the birth of Winnie the Pooh and all the family idiosyncrasies which make it happen. And then it pans to the horror of fame and the intrusiveness of fans and the media into Christopher Robin Milne’s life. Stitched up as it begins, around the spectre of World War, it’s a subtle tale which brings the most horrible of possible news on a bicycle. But there are twists in the material that make it an essay in gentle nostalgia.

It’s curious as to why it was been whipped off the Cinema Nouveau circuit within a few weeks of being released in South Africa. The good news is that it is already accessible as a DVD. A delicious slice of Edwardian life, it’s a film that may not change your life, but it will bring you a carefully crafted dollop of some extra special beauty.

  • Goodbye Christopher Robin is directed by Simon Curtis and features a cast headed by Sam Barnes, Amber Batty, Victoria Bavister, Rolan Bell, Nick Blakeley, Sarah Jayne Butler, Stephen Campbell Moore, Jim Cartwright, Richard Clifford, Simon Connolly, Grace Curtis, Matilda Curtis, Shaun Dingwall, Richard Dixon, Vincent Finch, Lance C. Fuller, Domhnall Gleeson, Harper Gray, Stanley Hamlin, Louis Harrison, Dexter Hyman, Sonny Hyman, Cameron Lane, Phoebe Lyons, Alex Lawther, Kelly Macdonald, Allegra Marland, Richard McCabe, Mark McKerracher, Kevin Millington, Vicki Pepperdine, Robert Portal, Nicholas Richardson, Margot Robbie, Tommy Rodger, Mossie Smith, Geraldine Somerville, Mark Tandy, Ann Thwaite, Will Tilston, Phoebe Wallter-Bridge and Simon Williams. It is written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan. Produced by Steve Christian and Damian Jones, it features creative input by Carter Burwell (music), Ben Smithard (cinematography), Victoria Boydell (editing), Alex Johnson (casting) and David Roger (production). Release date: March 15 2018.

 

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A scrumptious bit of Victoriana to make you cry

The Man

ME and my phantoms: Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), alongside Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) and other fantasy characters from A Christmas Carol. Photograph courtesy http://www.wlrfm.com

PICTURE THE VISUAL clichés of Victorian England with all its beautiful costumes, complicated pathways and wooden buildings. While you’re doing this, don’t forget to add in its dire poverty, abject filth and propensity toward child labour. It’s a complicated series of images which this filmic team, headed by Bharat Nalluri present you with: the back story to Charles Dickens’s 1843 runaway classic, A Christmas Carol. In The Man Who Invented Christmas you get so much more than just the story. It’s a delicious piece of film that brings to life all the timeless Dickensian characters in this happy/sad/shameful tale of society of the time, through the medium of a curmudgeon and four ghouls.

It also articulates the messy business of writing fiction under deadline with complicated family manoevres and unrelenting family responsibilities in the background. Featuring some totally fabulous cameo performances to look out for – including the always delightful Simon Callow as the illustrator John Leech and wonderful Miriam Margolyes as the Dickens’ chief cook and bottle-washer, Mrs Fisk – the work is entertaining and developed with a perspicuity that will keep you focused.

It takes you through the agony of Dickens’s previous critical and commercial flops – including Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes – his everpresent financial troubles and his personal history. You get to meet more than just the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future: you get a scary peek into the nature of debtors’ prison and the realities of Victorian work houses — institutions in London of the time — as well as a complex father/son pathology and an adoring grandfather with a sense of magic and a necromancer’s hat (Jonathan Pryce).

Even if you do not know the original tale, you’re taken through the rollercoaster of London in the early 1800s, and exposed to everything from maggots in biscuits to a caged crow named Grip. Christopher Plummer is completely superb in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and the popping up of fictional characters in the mind’s eye of Dickens as he unravels what turns out to be amongst the greatest stories of all times, is handled with filmic wisdom and wit.

The only palpable flaw in this work which considers Dickens as a full blown individual with flaws and passions, moods and an ability to become angry but also an ability to forgive, is the casting of the Dickens couple – Charles (played by Dan Stevens) and Kate (played by Morfydd Clark). And the problem here is that they’re just too physically perfect, which lends a tone of insufferable blandness to the lynchpin in the tale. Indeed, you keep having to remind yourself that this blue-eyed young man is actually meant to be Charles Dickens, and you come away thinking of him as a performer rather than as textured a character as the rest of the cast.

Remember, that the year is 1843. Dickens would have been 31 at the time. He died at the age of 58. By this time in his life, he’d suffered the indignities of poverty and rejection and was immensely prolific. And when you find yourself looking at this pretty young man and thinking about how blue his eyes are rather than the grit and substance of the character, something seems wrong.

Similarly, Kate. She had a total of 10 children with Dickens, and divorced him after 20 years of marriage. We meet her when she’s pregnant with number five. She looks much too young and flawless for a woman living the fairly unhappy and complicated life she had.

But the rambunctiousness of the tale allows you to forget this flaw as you recognise caveats from the original text and get taken through the ups and downs of Christmas in a time of want and need, miserliness and financial disparity. More than anything, the work under scrutiny is a slice of Victorian life and the film offers insights into all of the social and political, economic and historical interstices. It’s delicious.

  • The Man Who Invented Christmas is directed by Bharat Nalluri and is performed by Patrick Ball, Valeria Bandino, Annette Badland, Desmond Bird,  Patrick Joseph Byrnes, Simon Callow, Morfydd Clark, Jasper Hughes Cotter, Sean Duggan, Justin Edwards, Cosimo Fusco, Degnan Geraghty, Séamus Hanly, Derek Hannay, John Henshaw, Eddie Jackson, Miles Jupp, Miriam Margolyes, Kevin McCormack, Ian McNeice, David McSavage, Anna Murphy, Bill Paterson, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Mark Quigley, Ger Ryan, Mark Schrier, Cameron Simpson, Donna Marie Sludds, Ely Solan, Dan Stevens, Donald Sumpter, Ava May Taylor, Rosin Whelan and Aidan Wylde. It is written by Susan Coyne based on the book by Les Standiford. Produced by Niv Fichman, Vadim Jean, Robert Mickelson, Susan Mullen and Ian Sharples, it features creative input by Mychael Danna (music), Ben Smithard (cinematography), Stephen O’Connell and Jamie Pearson (editing), Amy Hubbard (casting), Paki Smith (production design), Julie Ochipinti (set), and Leonie Prendergast (costumes). Release date: December 15 2017.
  • There are currently three productions dealing with the Dickens classic: this film, A Seussified Christmas Carol, directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and A Christmas Carol directed by Elizma Badenhorst, which is reviewed here.