Goodbye Christopher Robin & The Teacher

November 24, 2017
Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh & Alan the poo
Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh & Alan the poo

Two films released this week look at the damage that may be inflicted on children by parents and teacher. Goodbye Christopher Robin shows us how A.A.Milne virtually destroyed his son’s life by making him the hero of the best-selling Winnie the Pooh stories. The Teacher, set in Bratislawa in 1983, is a much darker affair, but also much funnier in a spine-tingling way.

Preparing to write this piece I opened a desk drawer and spotted an old eraser emblazoned with a picture of Winnie the Pooh. I don’t even know how it got there, but it served as a sudden reminder of the bear’s all-encompassing popularity.

For Milne, a fashionable West End playwright, who returned shell-shocked from the First World War, the Pooh stories and poems were a kind of therapy. His burning ambition was to write an inspirational anti-war diatribe, but the movie finds him suffering from writer’s block, as he struggles to adapt to life in peacetime.

Having moved the family from London to a rambling cottage in Sussex, Milne courted the displeasure of his society-loving wife, Daphne, who had no affection for the country. Furious at her husband’s inertia she departed for an extended stay in London, leaving Milne alone with their only child, Christopher Robin – who preferred to be known by his nickname, “Billy Moon”.

From that brief period of father and son bonding – or so Simon Curtis’s movie would have us believe – the Christopher Robin tales were born. The rest may be history, but there’s also a good deal of sentimental tosh intended to soften the unpleasant realities of life in the Milne household.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a film that needs to be read between the lines. For much of the story Alan and Daphne Milne are the epitome of English stiffness, reserve and snobbery. Alan is a little more sympathetic because he is still coping with his war traumas, but Daphne is a shocker. Irishman, Domhnall Gleeson, and Australian, Margot Robbie, take to these roles with a certain relish, perhaps channelling all the frigid experiences they have ever endured in what the English call “polite society”.

It seems that Curtis, his producers, and possibly his scriptwriters, couldn’t quite cope with a film that showed Daphne and Alan cheating on each other, neglecting their son, then treating him like a circus act. Christopher, for his part, became completely dependent on his nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald) who was the sole person to show him any affection. He would grow up loathing his parents in a way that is only partially conveyed in the movie.

The details of life chez Milne may have receded into the unknowable past, but this movie – disturbing as it is – makes the story look much rosier than it was. Somebody obviously decided the world was still not ready for Winnie the Pooh: the Shocking Truth (MA 15+).

The Teacher is not only based on a true story, it’s a story with a much deeper sense of truth. Set in Slovakia in 1983, when the Iron Curtain was still in place, it’s an allegory for the abuse of power: a dispassionate portrait of a society in which petty corruption and hypocrisy have become institutionalised.

Director, Jan Hrebejk, has mastered that sense of bleak irony common to so many Eastern European movies, which look back on the Communist era. The characters live in shabby apartments with cheap furniture and truly horrible landscape prints, looking for a shred of comfort in the midst of an aesthetic desert. The story is told in a no-frills manner, never using music to underline meanings, or inject false drama. Hrebejk makes us feel like an eavesdropper on every conversation, a voyeur on every encounter. In brief, he recreates the feeling of what it is like to live in a society in which one’s actions are spied upon and judged; where a stray word many spell ruin; where privileges are reserved for those who are ruthless, unscrupulous and sycophantic.

The movie begins with new teacher, Maria Drazdechová greeting her teenage pupils. A plump middle-aged widow, with a bright and cheery manner, she begins by making a list of her students’ names and writing down what their parents do for a living.

What no-one suspects is that this is a prelude to an elaborate system of favours the teacher will expect of pupils and parents. Those who play along will be rewarded with high marks, the dissenters will be punished. We watch the story take shape in a series of flashbacks during a parent and teacher meeting where a handful of injured parents try to get their peers to sign a statement of complaint. The room swiftly divides into the minority who feel the need to speak out, another group who cleave to the side of authority, and the majority that watches in fearful silence.

It’s a metaphor for a entire social system in which those with connections to the Party enjoyed the ascendency over others. Mrs Drazdechová is the Party representative at the school, and the dissenting parents know they are risking everything by complaining about her behaviour. Zuzana Mauréry puts in a chilling performance as a “poor weak woman” whose sense of entitlement takes on surreal, megalomaniacal dimensions. She has all the traits of a model Communist dictator.

Goodbye Christopher Robin
Directed by Simon Curtis
Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce & Simon Vaughan
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Will Tilston, Kelly Macdonald, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard McCabe
UK, rated PG, 107 mins

The Teacher
Directed by Jan Hrebejk
Written by Petr Jarchovsky
Starring Zusana Mauréry, Csongsor Kassai, Zuzana Konecná, Peter Bebjak, Martin Havelka, Tamara Fischer, Oliver Oswald, Ina Gogálová
Slovakia/Czech Republic, rated M, 103 mins.

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 25 November, 2017