Film reviews round-up: Goodbye Christopher Robin, Home Again, Daphne, Pecking Order, Zoology

Geoffrey Macnab is moved by an AA Milne biopic and delights in the humour of a documentary about chickens, but struggles to find joy in a romcom and a surrealistic drama

Geoffrey Macnab@TheIndyFilm
Wednesday 27 September 2017 13:35
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Winnie formula: Domhnall Gleeson as the author in ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’
Winnie formula: Domhnall Gleeson as the author in ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’

Goodbye Christopher Robin

★★★★☆

Dir: Simon Curtis, 107 mins, starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Nico Mirallegro, Alex Lawther

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a real tearjerker with plenty of very maudlin moments but what makes the film so fascinating, and ultimately so moving, is the bleakness that sits alongside the sentimentality. This is a film about loss and betrayal on many different levels.

The film begins in a very curious fashion for a biopic about the creator of Winnie the Pooh. The opening scenes are set in 1941, in the midst of one war. Then, after a shot of a cricket ball exploding, we are suddenly whisked back into another. Author AA Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), or “Blue” as he is nicknamed, is shown as an officer in the trenches in 1916. You won’t look at Eeyore and Tigger in quite the same way when you realise the origins of Milne’s children’s classic.

Milne returns from the Somme in a very damaged state. The popping of a balloon is enough to unleash traumatic memories. This is a story about his suffering as much as it is about the magical Hundred Acre Wood where Christopher Robin, Pooh and the other animals live. The point here is that one world could not have existed without the other. If he hadn’t been trying to escape from the shadow of the war, Milne wouldn’t have written the Pooh books in the first place.

The irony is the destructive effect the books have on his own family. At times, he seems to care more about his work and reputation than he does about his own son, who is the subject of the books.

The screenplay, by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan, is full of the kind of brittle, witty dialogue you’d expect to find in PG Wodehouse comedies but here, that dialogue always has an edge. “I was at the Somme,” one soldier mentions during a cocktail party. “How was it?” he is asked. “Bad show,” the soldier replies in a seemingly offhand way but we know that he is actually trying to say is that it was absolute hell. “Tinkerty tonk” is the toast Milne proposes, a nonsense word he uses to mask his true feelings about the war.

There is an air of desperation about many of the characters. Milne’s wife Daphne, (played in an attractively breathless fashion by Margot Robbie with an upper-class English accent that occasionally has an Aussie ring to it), is always looking for distraction. Her vivaciousness has a manic quality. She can’t bear to be bored. She can’t bear to live with her famous writer husband, either, if he is not actually writing anything. Milne, for his part, can’t work out what to write.

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Their son Christopher Robin (played as a boy by Will Tilston and as a young man by Alex Lawther) is both the hero of the film and its main victim. Daphne treats him in blithely offhand fashion, showering him with affection one moment and ignoring him the next. She doesn’t want to become too close to him because she suspects she might lose him to another war. Besides, giving birth to him was an inconvenience and parenthood gets in the way of her hectic social life.

Little Christopher Robin, or Billy Moon as he is called, is at first an unwanted distraction to his father too but eventually provides Milne both with a way to exorcise his wartime demons and to achieve his greatest and most unlikely literary success. There are no bears in Sussex until Milne and his son unleash Pooh.

Neither Milne nor his wife are above a little commercial hustling. She sells one of his private poems to a magazine. Meanwhile, he quickly brings down artist EH Shepard to the countryside to make the sketches of his son and his teddy bear that eventually inspire the illustrations for the Winnie the Pooh books.

Goodbye Christopher Robin stands alongside Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (set in the Deep South of the US) as one of this year’s films that will most delight naturalists. Director Simon Curtis goes to great lengths to show off the Sussex woods to their best advantage. In their luxuriance and beauty, the woodlands seem all the more magical because of the contrast they provide to the trenches and battlefields. “After the war, there was so much sadness that nobody remembered what happiness was like,” someone observes in a slightly glib way of the reason that Winnie the Pooh caught the public imagination.

The film has levels of complexity that may put off some audiences hoping to bask in the cosy, nostalgic pleasures generally offered by British costume biopics or to revisit one of the most popular characters in children’s literature. Milne and his wife here are generally sympathetic figures but both behave selfishly. Christopher Robin is prey to self-pity and petulance (you can half understand why his classmates delight in throwing him down the stairs).

This isn’t, then, a very happy family, but what makes the film so affecting is the sense of yearning that runs through it – the belief shared by both Milne and his son that there is some world of lost innocence that they will be able to recapture with the help of the bear in the woods.

Home Again

★★☆☆☆

Dir: Hallie Meyers-Shyer, 97 mins, starring: Reese Witherspoon, Michael Sheen, Nat Wolff, Candice Bergen, Lake Bell, Lola Flanery

This is a romantic comedy but one that would need only the very slightest tweaking to be transformed into a home invasion horror movie. It’s a perverse affair that seems like a Disney family movie one moment and a satire about needy and narcissistic Hollywood folk the next.

Its heroine, recently separated middle-aged mom Alice Kinney (played in the usual bright and breezy fashion by Reese Witherspoon), has just moved back to her home town, LA. Her music business executive husband (Michael Sheen) is still on the East Coast. Alice wants to devote more time to her two young daughters and to pursue her career as an interior designer.

Alice’s father is movie director John Kinney whose masterwork was “Lola In Between” (judging by the posters and old clips, this seems to have been a cross between Woody Allen’s Manhattan and one of Ingmar Bergman’s films about a woman under the influence.) Kinney is now dead but we catch glimpses of him in flashbacks. She is proud of him but also very ambivalent about the way he treated her movie star mother Lillian (Candice Bergen), whom he abandoned for another woman.

It’s not quite clear what all the Hollywood back story serves here. One guesses that writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer is simply drawing on elements of her own biography. Her mother is Nancy Meyers (director of The Parent Trap and The Holiday), and her father is Charles Shyer (director of Private Benjamin and Father Of The Bride). Screwball chick-flick comedy clearly runs in the blood.

Home Again has barely started when Alice celebrates her 40th birthday with a raucous night of drinking and dancing. She picks up a team of three young indie filmmakers (writer, director and actor) in a bar and takes them home. Early attempts at having sex with one of them, aspiring director Harry (Pico Alexander), are thwarted only because he has had far too much to drink.

The three filmmakers don’t have a place to stay. Their money is running out and they haven’t caught their big break yet. With the encouragement of her mother, Alice agrees to allow the “boy wonders” to live in her guesthouse. They do the cooking and some of the housework. They look after the daughters. They all seemingly have a huge crush on Alice. She starts an affair with Harry.

On one level, it’s refreshing that the middle-aged mum can have a relationship with a toyboy lover many years younger than her without moralising from the filmmakers. There are plenty of other movies in which middle-aged men have relationships with younger women. What is perplexing here, though, is just why Alice is so drawn to Harry. For all his epicene good looks, he is a very callow and superficial seeming character. It is hard, too, to accept the vision of happy families that Home Again offers with the three guests becoming an integral part of the household. The screenwriter George (Jon Rudnitsky) helps Alice’s elder daughter Lola with her playwriting and becomes her agony uncle. The actor Teddy (Nat Wolff) helps out around the house and plays with the younger daughter, Rosie.

When Michael Sheen’s character turns up unexpectedly, he seems an interloper. The three young filmmakers have such a sense of entitlement they can’t understand why on earth Alice allows him into what they now see as their home, even if he is her husband and the father of her daughters.

Meyers-Shyer’s screenplay is pulling in several contradictory directions. It’s yet another story about out-of-towners trying to make the grade in Hollywood. The three filmmakers are very ambitious. They want agents, deals and the chance to make their own movie. At the same time, they’re perfect little homebodies who like helping Alice with the domestic chores and doing the babysitting.

Alice’s own goals are also hard to fathom. She has come back to LA to escape the hedonistic, career-driven lifestyle of her husband in New York and yet, as soon as she arrives in California, she is busy trying to get business as an interior decorator. Her main client is the wonderfully haughty and self-centred Zoey (Lake Bell), who treats her like a lackey. The screenplay encourages us to feel sorry for Alice, the kind-hearted, hard-working, newly separated single mother, “exhausted and hopeless” and trying to do the best by her career and her children in difficult circumstances. Nonetheless, we are also aware that she is extremely wealthy. Given the circumstances in which she lives, her everyday problems don’t seem quite so taxing after all.

The most enjoyable aspect here is Witherspoon’s performance. Almost two decades after playing student heroines and bossy schoolgirls in films like Election and Legally Blonde, she shows exactly the same gumption and sly good humour now as the parent figure. She certainly deserves some credit for putting across lines like “you know I’m 40, right” with such conviction and for convincing us that she really does see something worthwhile in her needy, demanding and increasingly irritating house guests.

Daphne

★★★☆☆

Dir: Peter Mackie Burns, 86 mins, starring: Emily Beecham, Geraldine James, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Nathaniel Martello-White, Osy Ikhile, Sinead Matthews

Nothing is ever simple for Daphne (Emily Beecham), the young middle-class woman who can always diagnose what is wrong with the rest of the world but can’t make any sense of her own life in Peter Mackie Burns’s closely focused character study.

Daphne appears in almost every scene of the film. She is often infuriating. Pretentious (reading and quoting from works by contemporary philosopher Slavoj Zizek), arrogant and self-indulgent, she continually insults and alienates those closest to her. She won’t even take calls from her long-suffering mother (Geraldine James). She is very off-hand with the restaurant boss (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), who dotes on her and will never sack her, however badly she behaves. Daphne drinks and takes drugs. She has one-night stands but will reject and stand up boyfriends in just as whimsical a way as she’ll take up with them.

The longer the film progresses, the more evident it becomes that, for all her freedom, she is utterly miserable. When she witnesses a stabbing in a convenience store, she struggles to understand her own reaction. Confronted with a family man coming close to bleeding to death in front of her, she feels nothing at all.

In his portrait of the troubled heroine, director Mackie Burns is aiming for the same claustrophobic intimacy that was found in another low budget BFI-funded film, Under The Skin, starring Samantha Morton and written and directed by Carine Adler. He also appears to be inspired by the films John Cassavetes made with Gena Rowlands. However, the filmmakers here aren’t prepared to push to the same extremes as Adler and Cassavetes did. There are moments here in which sugar-coating is introduced. We know that Daphne isn’t quite as selfish as she first appears because she makes up sandwiches for a homeless man from the leftovers at the restaurant. She’ll show flashes of kindness, humour or quirkiness and will suddenly behave as if she is a character in a far lighter and more optimistic film. She is articulate and witty, especially when commenting on her mother’s latest obsessions (mindfulness and Buddhism) or mocking a work colleague who talks incessantly about her children.

Beecham impresses in patches but there is always a sense that she, like the filmmakers, is holding something back and isn’t prepared to go all the way.

Pecking Order

★★★★☆

Dir: Slavko Martinov, 88 mins, featuring: Doug Bain, Sarah Bunton, Bob Dawber, Brian Glassey, Brett Hawker, Mark Lilley

A film about a group of in-fighting New Zealand chicken fanciers might not seem an alluring prospect but Slavko Martinov’s new documentary is both absorbing and funny. Martinov’s subject is the Christchurch Poultry, Bantam and Pigeon Club, which is 148 years old when he starts filming but on the verge of the biggest crisis in its existence. Its acting president, the diminutive Doug Bain, has ruffled the feathers of some of his fellow members, who want to oust him. Bain is regarded by his critics as dictatorial and old fashioned – a bit of a cock in other words.

The National Championships are coming up and the breeders are vying for their birds to be the “Best In Show”. To outsiders, the bird fanciers can’t help but seem deeply eccentric. Martinov’s film is often very humorous but he never mocks his subjects. He has gained the trust of all the factions within the club and everyone speaks to him very frankly about the problems there.

This is a story about money and power as well as about feathers and coops. As in one of those Anthony Trollope novels in which everybody is conspiring about who should become the new bishop, a seemingly harmonious, close-knit community turns out to be seething with tension.

The jaunty music and tongue-in-cheek intertitles (“you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette”) can make the film seem flippant at times but the hen breeders are ferociously competitive. They’re desperate to win. Their earnest behaviour only serves to make the film seem more humorous. At the same time, Pecking Order is informative about the arcane world of the bird fanciers: how they feed and prepare the “chooks”, and what the judges are looking for.

Of course, this is a film about human beings as much as it is one about hens. It works because Martinov has found such lively characters. From Doug himself to the youngsters trying to emulate their parents and the very fussy and opinionated Australian judges, all of the subjects here are engaging and colourful. The birds themselves, at least the ones which win “Best In Show”, turn out to be surprisingly photogenic. At the start of the film, to the non-specialist at least, all the chickens look the same. By the end, we can see the distinctions between them and understand why the judges prefer one over another.

Zoology

★★★☆☆

Dir: Ivan I Tverdovskiy, 91 mins, starring: Natalya Pavlenkova, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Masha Tokareva, Dmitriy Groshev, Irina Chipizhenko, Anna Astashkina

In this intriguing Russian satire, a harassed, middle-aged female office worker suddenly sprouts a tail. Writer-director Ivan I Tverdovskiy provides no real explanation as to where the new growth comes from or what purpose it serves. The storytelling style here is deadpan and matter of fact.

Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova), who has a desk-bound job at the local zoo, isn’t granted any new powers by her new tail. The doctors who try to look at it under X-Ray react as if this is some unusual tumour. On her visits to the clinic, there are always old ladies chattering away about witches who grow tails

Natasha is liberated by her condition. She has her hair done, starts drinking and party going, and begins an affair with a much younger man, Peter (Dmitriy Groshev), a radiologist who has an erotic fascination with her new growth. However, she is soon shunned by the townsfolk, who react to her condition as if she has leprosy and cross the road at the sight of her. Even her elderly mother won’t cuddle her any more.

The film is open to many readings. The tail, it is implied, might have grown as a result of Natasha’s stress. She is relentlessly bullied by her spectacularly unpleasant work colleagues, who hide mice in her desk drawer to frighten her and gossip maliciously about her behind her back. Before the tail appears, she is oppressed and browbeaten. We see her walking through the grounds of the zoo, feeding the animals. The tail unleashes her own feral side. It makes her “different” and difference is one thing her neighbours simply won’t tolerate.

There are also references to contaminated food. Natasha is in charge of supplies at the zoo and has to strike risky deals with suppliers because of budget cuts.

Tverdovskiy’s deliberately enigmatic approach is frustrating at times. We want to know why this dowdy middle-aged woman has this long pink protuberance dangling from the base of her spine. The director, though, realises that too much information and context would simply be reductive and strip the film of its mystery. He therefore leaves us to puzzle out the meaning of the tail for ourselves.

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