Thor: Ragnarok

It’s been six years since Chris Hemsworth’s Thor swaggered onto the MCU scene with charmingly misplaced arrogance and pecks that could crush an Infinity Stone to dust. But lately it feels like the God of Thunder has grown stale: Alan Taylor’s grimly stogy follow-up and an overstuffed Avengers sequel proving that all the Shakespearean haminess and entitled worthiness were starting to lose their appeal.

Thankfully, Thor: Ragnarok is just the bonkers shot in the arm the hammer-twirling superhero required. Gleefully tearing up the rule book for a cape-and-tights adventure, director Taiki Waititi has crafted a colourfully cosmic thrill ride that’s funnier and more uproarious than a modern superhero movie has any right to be.

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The director of affectingly funny Kiwi comedies Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi wastes little time in stamping his off-beat style on the Norse god. Things kick-off with a side-splitting prologue in which Thor’s attempts to reason with a fiery demon are constantly interrupted by the twirling of his restraints and the from there delivers belly laughs at every turn.

It’s indicative of a movie that cheerfully brings out the superhero genre’s inherent silliness by undercutting any hint of seriousness or pomposity with a perfectly executed mix of clever, daft and just plain weird gags. Make no mistake, Ragnarok still delivers all the pulse-quickening set-pieces you could desire – it’s just that it’s all imbued with an effervescent sense fun which brings a whole new energy to proceedings.

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The God of Thunder likewise feels reinvigorated by this change in tone. Since we last saw him swatting verbose robots in Age of Ultron, Thor’s taken to wandering the cosmos to learn more about the Infinity Stones (or “glowing stoney things” as he calls them). That is until a premonition forces him to return to Asgard – where his brother Loki has dethroned Odin and dumped him in an Earthly retirement home – to head off the threat posed by Cate Blanchett’s invading Hela. After receiving an almighty pasting from the Goddess of Death, Thor is tossed from the Bifrost and finds himself stranded on the junkyard planet Sakaar. There he’s promptly taken hostage, shorn of his cape, his trusty Mjolnir and, most devastatingly of all, his flowing golden locks, before being thrown into the gladiatorial pits to fight for his freedom.

Being stripped of his defining traits proves to be transformative for the buffest of deities. Left with only his fists and wits to survive, we get to see a grittier, wilier Thor, but also a more vulnerable one, which is particularly enticing given his strength is about to be severely tested in terrifying new ways. It also allows Hemsworth to flex the comedic muscles he so handsomely displayed in last year’s Ghostbusters reboot, ditching the fish-out-of-water schtick of previous outings and throwing himself into a much sillier version of Odinson.

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And then there’s the big green rage machine. Riffing on the Planet Hulk storyline, Thor is joined in his kaleidoscopic exile by Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, whose stuck in perma-Hulk mode and eking out an existence as Sakaar’s premier tourist attraction. Having developed a broader vocabulary, the strongest Avenger gets more to do than just Hulk smash his way through every scene (though there’s still plenty of destructive force on show) and quickly forms a winning double act as the tightly-wound straightman to Hemsworth’s reckless hero.

Indeed, the movie is stuffed with staggering performances. Tom Hiddleston makes a welcome return as sly mischief maker Loki, who finds himself unexpectedly on the fringes of his brother’s plans after his previous betrayal. Jeff Goldblum is at his most flamboyant as Sakaar’s eccentric overlord the Grandmaster. Tessa Thompson is an impressive addition, playing an ale-swigging Asgardian warrior-turned-scavenger. Meanwhile, Waititi almost steals the entire movie with an hilarious turn as softly spoken Kronan gladiator Korg whose heartfelt commentary results in some of the best lines.wits

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But true to Marvel form, the villain fails to inspire. Blanchett is a certainly striking presence, looking for all the world like Marlyn Manson’s stroppy sister with her smudged eyeliner and twisted headdress, and poses a significant threat with her superior strength and ability to conjure razor sharp weapons out of thin air. Yet she’s underused, her motive for invading Asgard never fully fleshed out and little being made of her complex connection to Thor’s family. Her scenes rarely move the action forward and serve only as an unwelcome distraction from the bombastic joys of Thor’s off-world hijnks.

That’s ultimately where Ragnarok falters: when it’s forced to be a straight-forward superhero movie. Though the plot is far from slight – dealing with massacres, slavery, refugees and the small matter of the end of days – attempts to reach the heavier emotional beats are hampered by the constant barrage of gags that are fired towards us. It feels like the movie spends so much time goofing across the universe that there’s little time left for character building or emotional depth. With the stakes made to feel so low, it’s hardly shocking that the climatic showdown lacks gravity – and not just because Waititi can’t help but resort to the usual Giant CGI Thing cliche.

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Nevertheless, Thor: Ragnarok is a delirious carnival of psychaedelic colour and bonkers entertainment that offers a fresh, invigorating look at one of the most popular Avengers. If only Waititi has resisted the urge to revert to formula in the final third…

Runtime: 130 mins (approx.)
Director: Taiki Waititi
Screenwriters: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett

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The Death of Stalin – Film Review

For most, laughter isn’t a typical response when thinking about the death of Joseph Stalin, the ruthless leader of the Soviet Union whose reign was defined by wide-spread famine, labour camps and mass executions. Then again, most of us aren’t Armando Iannucci, the genius writer of The Thick of It and Veep. Having extracted plenty of giggles from the daft machinations of Whitehall and Washington, the master satirist applies his brand of political farce to one of the darkest periods in human history. And the result is one of the most breathlessly funny movies of the year.

Adapted from the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, The Death of Stalin sees Stalin’s most trusted sycophants scrambling to fill the power vacuum left by their dearly departed leader. Cue a pile-up of panicked plotting, paranoid power plays and enough terrified cursing to bring the colour back to Stalin’s pallid cheeks as the Soviet Union’s most senior politicians jostle for position – all in the knowledge that failure means almost certain death.

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Naturally, Iannucci has assembled a staggering cast to play such a vile bunch of power-hungry plotters. Paul Whitehouse is wheeler-dealer labour minister Mikayan, who has a small but pivotal part to play in selected Stalin’s successor. Michael Palin lends his kindly puppy dog eyes to harmless loyalist Molotov, who sold out his own wife to curry favour with his leader. Jeffrey Tambor is on top form as the vain and pliable patsy Malenkov. Steve Buscemi channels his Broadwalk Empire experience into playing the bumbling but deceptively sinister Khrushchev.

Rather than battering audiences with terrible cod-Russian accents, the entire cast play their parts using their own gloriously incongruous accents. That means we’re treated to the sights and sounds of Adrian Mclaughlin playing Stalin as a raging cockney and Jason Isaac bellowing lines like “I fucked Germany. I think I can take a flesh lump in a waistcoat,” in a thunderous Yorkshire brogue as venerated army general Zhukov.

The pick of the bunch, though, is Simon Russell Beale’s icy and ruthless secret police chief Beria. Even amongst this collection of despicable wretches, Beria stands out as the dark heart of the movie, keeping young girls locked up for his pleasure and coldly ordering the execution of innocent ‘traitors’, all while slyly scheming to seize power.

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It’s Beria’s vicious inhumanity that reminds you that Moscow in 1953 was a dangerous place to be. Stalin operated a totalitarian regime that was rife with mistrust and paranoia: secret police officers hid behind every corner, children turned informant on their own fathers, and just one slip of the tongue could see you carted off to the gulag to be tortured and executed. Iannucci draws upon this palpable sense of panic to heighten the comedy. With In the Loop, a mistake meant, at worst, media embarrassment; here, any slip-up means joining Stalin on the mortuary slab, and the rapid-fire dialogue and weapons-grade insults are that much sharper because everyone knows the high cost of failure.

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Yet for all the humour, the movie doesn’t shy away from showing the true brutality of Stalin’s era and its most affecting moments come when the comedy stops and the high stakes are made devastatingly clear. Iannucci balances these tonal shifts superbly, allowing a peerless piece of slapstick involving the moving of a piss-stained corpse to be followed seamlessly by a terrifying sequence where Stalin’s palace is ransacked and his servants are shot in the driveway. Such scenes pave the way for a gut-wrenching final 10 minutes in which Khrushchev executes his ghastly plan to bloody effect and you realise that – all the fun and games aside – for the loser these violent delights have violent ends.

Runtime: 106 mins (approx.)
Director: Armando Iannucci
Screenwriters: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin
StarsThe Death of Stalin – Film Review: Simon Russell Beale, Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Isaacs, Paul Whitehouse, Adrian Mclaughlin

 

Happy Death Day – Film Review

It’s a rare occasion when a great performance manages to elevate an otherwise sucky movie. The likes of Nicholas Cage and Eva Green have made careers out of the art – but very few others have managed to pop up out of the mess and do something truly special to make their movie watchable. Jessica Rothe does just that in Happy Death Day, her full-blooded performance turning an otherwise forgettably bloodless teen slasher movie into a genuine thrill.

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Rothe plays Teresa – or Tree for short – an irresponsible college student whose birthday – a day she already loathes – gets off to the worst possible start when she wakes up hungover in the dorm room of her adorably dorky one-night-stand. Naturally, things get progressively worse for Tree in the ensuing 24 hours as she endures repeated calls from her disappointed dad, snarky snipping from her sorority sisters and the needy advnaces of her sexually confused ex. Oh yeah, and she gets murdered in a campus underpass by a baby-faced psychopath. But then she wakes up, stuck in the same day, unable to to break the cycle until she finds her killer.

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Few surprises lay ahead in this slasher horror meets teen comedy as Tree naively barrels into every cliche in the horror cannon in her attempt to Live.Die.Repeat her way to uncovering her killer’s identity. There’s enough walking through darkly lit corridors and fleeing into obvious dead ends that genre aficionados will likely suffer a repetitive strain injury from the amount of eye rolling they’ll be doing. The lack of invention wouldn’t be so problematic if Tree’s many deaths weren’t so scare-free and gore-less. That’s the key flaw with this Groundhog Day-aping format: we already know she’ll wake up again so we have no reason to fear her next impending demise – especially as it appears it’ll be largely painless.

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Thankfully, Rothe is the movie’s saving grace. Whether she’s strutting across a college campus in the nude, delivering brilliantly bitchy one-liners with venomous aplomb or going full Sarah Connor in her attempts to defeat her killer, Tree is a fireball of badass energy that actually makes the movie a fun, spirited watch for 90 minutes. It’s also pretty refreshing to see a female action hero being so unafraid to be unlikeable and confident in her sexuality – at least until she’s bizarrely slut-shamed by an incomprehensible third act twist. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie doesn’t share her boldness.

Runtime: 96 mins (approx.)
Director: Christopher Landon
Screenwriter: Scott Lobdell
Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken

Gunpowder – TV Review

“No more swords, no more horses – and maybe I can cut my hair.” So Kit Harrington reportedly demanded of roles inbetween turns as Game of Thrones’ resident auntie-romancer Jon Snow. Cue much sword wielding, horse riding and an impressive mane as Harrington seeks to transfer his brooding charms to BBC1 for Gunpowder, a bleak historical drama about the plot to blow up the House of Lord in 1605.

But while the King of the North might be on familiar territory, the same can’t be said for the rest of us. Despite commemorating the event each year by setting fire to old kitchens and paying through the nose for whimsical pyrotechnic displays, it’s likely many of us know next to nothing about the real events of the gunpowder plot.

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For starters, Harrington isn’t even playing Guy Fawkes, who was really just the fall guy for the plotters after being caught guarding barrels of explosives beneath Westminster all those years ago. Instead, he stars as his real-life ancestor Robert Catesby, the true mastermind behind the plot whose role has largely avoided the eyes of history up to this point.

That the true story has gone untold for so long is surprising, for it’s a tale ripe dripping with dramatic potential. Scripted by Top Boy’s Ronan Bennett, the show draws us into an expensively mounted, relentlessly grim world of religious persecution, where stately homes are routinely ransacked by the King’s guard and Catholic priests are forced to cower in secret holes for preaching the word of God.

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Gunpowder doesn’t shy away from revealing the gruesome reality of this period. One particularly unpleasant sequence sees Catesby’s elderly aunt stripped naked and slowly crushed to death in front of a baying mob, followed moments later by a boyish priest being disembowelled and dismembered.

So why, given its obvious pedigree and rich source material, does the drama underwhelm? Part of the reason is the aforementioned bleakness. The first episode is unrelentingly grim, full of stoney faced characters either being brutally tortured or brooding over the state of the country. Perhaps such horrific scenes are important in establishing what sets Catesby and his conspirators on their path towards an act of terrible revenge, but it hardly makes for enjoyable Saturday night entertainment.

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The story also suffers by trying to hard to cover all angles. The flaw in dramatising a little-known period of history is that the audience need events to be put into context for them. That leaves episode one with a lot a heavy lifting to do, meaning there’s little time to get under the skin of its characters. And that’s a shame because the performances are uniformly excellent – look out for a grandly malevolent turn by Mark Gatiss as arch schemer Lord Robert Cecil.

The fireworks may be still to come, of course – the plot has barely begun to be plotted by the episode’s end, leaving plenty of scope for the action to pick up in the remaining two instalments. But if Gunpowder continues on its current trajectory, its plot is in danger of being scuppered before it’s even had a chance to light the fuse.

The Snowman – Film Review

The body of a desirable young woman artfully displayed at a crime scene. A tauntingly sadistic serial killer with an offbeat calling card. And a drunken, rulebook-shredding cop with a penchant for flattering winter wear. Director Tomas Alfredson has dusted off every moth-eaten crime drama cliche he can find for this half-baked adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman. But while the latest Scandi-noir thriller certainly has the look of a classic crime drama, dig a little deeper and you’ll find little more than a hackneyed murder mystery lacking in pace and originality.

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Michael Fassbender is Harry Hole, a booze addicted detective and forgetful father-figure whose once promising career hangs in the balance unless he can find a new case to help him get back on track. Fortunately for him, plucky new recruit Kathrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) lets him tag along on the case of a missing woman whose body is found near a freshly built snowman. Needless to say, there’s more to the crime than meets the eye, as the mismatched duo uncover links to a previously unsolved cold case.

Scripted by Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini – who penned the Oscar winning screenplay for Drive – and directed by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s Alfredson, the early signs were promising for this adaptation of the seventh of Nesbo’s Harry Hole novels. Yet while Alfredson beautifully captures the breathtaking isolation Oslo’s icy landscape, almost everything else about this film is a tangled mess.

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Many of its problems stem from a script that feels cobbled together out of disparate parts that don’t quite mesh. The investigation feels like a long slog through the snowy wilderness as the plot stumbles between different timelines that have little connective tissue between them. As a result, the resolution to the case fails to have the desired impact, offering only tenuous links rather than the devastating revelations intended.

Alfredson also struggles to gain a firm grasp of the film’s tone. The director displays a David Fincher-esque eye for macabre imagery – a shot of child’s toy drenched in blood is particularly unsettling. Yet this sits uncomfortably alongside the quirkier elements of Alfredson’s style, such as the police force’s anachronistic portable tablets, which are bulkier than most TV sets, or any scene involving Val Kilmer’s hammy detective, who appears to be acting in an entirely different film.

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Still, at least Kilmer can claim to be having fun with his role, which is more than can be said for the rest of the cast. The Snowman boasts a startling supporting cast, including the likes of J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones and Chloë Sevigny, but such talents are rarely afforded time to make an impact, playing a conveyor belt of unlikely suspects and easy chicken fodder for the real killer. Fassbender also struggles, failing to truly sell the personal turmoil Hole suffers in trying to solve the murders – even if he does inevitably look the part as handsomely dishevelled anti-hero.

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It’s Rebecca Ferguson who really shines as typically overzealous rookie Bratt. The revelation of what drives her reckless desperation to find the killer is the film’s most powerfully devastating moment and it’s a shame her character is inexplicably sidelined during the film’s final third, her impulsive actions robbing her of the opportunity for revenge.

If the intention was for this film to kick-start a franchise for Oslo’s finest detective, The Snowman is an abominable misfire. There’s little in this lacklustre and weightless thriller to suggest there’s any reason for Fassbender to dig out his tatty green duffle coat anytime soon. Perhaps he can find a place to hang it up next to his Assassin’s Creed garb…

Runtime: 119 mins (approx.)

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Screenwriters: Peter Straugan, Hossein Amini

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Val Kilmer, Toby Jones

Blade Runner 2049 – Film Review

If reviving the Star Wars franchise seemed a near-Herculean task, spare a thought for Dennis Villeneuve. Revitalising the superlative space saga might’ve had its challenges, but at least its legion of fans were of one mind about their expectations. In creating this long-awaited follow-up to Blade Runner, Villeneuve faced a much tougher assignment, its diehard supporters having spend the past 35 years pouring over every iteration of the sci-fi classic, endlessly debating the plot’s myriad mysteries. While Villeneuve wisely steers clear of offering any definitive answers to those questions, there’s no doubt Blade Runner 2049 defies even the loftiest of expectations.

Scripted by Michael Green and Hampton Fancher – who also penned the original – 2049 unsurprisingly picks up three decades after the first film. The intervening years have not been kind to Earth: the climate has collapsed and the wealthiest citizens have abandoned ship for the off-world colonies, leaving only the poorest, who survive on synthetic gruel and the companionship of holographic call girls.

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The Tyrell Corporation has also fallen, bought out by the Jared Leto-led Wallace Corporation, who’ve created a brand new line of replicants, more compliant than the Nexus-6 models thanks to the eradication of troublesome features like emotions or free will. Ryan Gosling’s Agent K is one of the new breed, a blade runner tasked with hunting down and retiring older models. His latest mission leads K to an encounter with Dave Bautista’s protein farmer where he makes a startling discovery that causes him to question his own existence and the future of the human race.

To say anymore would be to spoil a bold, absorbing movie, who’s mysteries are best discovered as the story unfolds. What is certain is that 2049 is a much cleaner, easier watch than its predecessor. Whereas the original was deliberately, almost punishingly obtuse, Villeneuve’s update feels like a much brisker watch – despite being 45 minutes longer – and is more open about it’s intentions, rather than hiding everything behind a wall of portentous eulogising.

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Not that Blade Runner has become yet another commercialised blockbuster filled with city-pulverising, vertiginous actions sequences. 2049 remains a slow-burning, deeply ponderous detective story that gently muses on themes of isolation, identity and human connection in a way that feels like a natural progression to the first film. Any violence is brief but brutal and purposeful, acting as a sudden, devastating blow within a supremely satisfying, emotionally compelling narrative.

The defining elements of the original’s dark, twisted future world remain intact, too. Eyeballs are a prominent motif, fluorescent-hared denizens still munch on Asian street food and the Voight-Kampff test has become an even more distressing experience. In fact, so delicately has Villeneuve recreated the look and feel of the original, it’s almost to his detriment. Blade Runner was such a ground-breaking piece of work at least in part due to Ridley Scott’s impressively realised neon-drenched futurescape, which has been aped countless times over the intervening years. By contrast, 2049’s rain-soaked tower blocks and dust bowl necropolises feel like just another respectful copy – albeit a superbly crafted one.

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One area where 2049 undoubtedly excels is in the performances of its two leads. Gosling once again demonstrates his talent for imbuing deep pathos into handsomely passive characters, transforming the outwardly machine-like K into a thoughtful, engrossing presence. Harrison Ford is on similarly excellent form. Returning to yet another classic character, Ford’s skills are seriously tested in role that requires him to dig much deeper into Deckard’s emotional state than in his previous outing.

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Only Jared Leto, playing self-aggrandising, monologue-prone industrialist Niander Wallace, feels below his best. Though given he’s lumbered with an entirely superfluous character who exists solely to deliver drawn-out theological rants to Sylvia Hoecks’ super-humanly patient replicant enforcer, it’s perhaps no surprise that Leto would resort to biting huge chunks out of the gorgeous scenery.

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Without an engaging antagonist to match the Rutger Hauer’s tragic skinjob Roy and the unplanned poetic alchemy of his ‘Tears in rain’ soliloquy, 2049 misses some of the devastating emotional force of its predecessor. Yet that shouldn’t detract from what’s otherwise an extraordinary achievement by Villeneuve. Whether Blade Runner 2049 lives up to the expectations of its demanding fanbase will no doubt be debated for at least another 30 years, but there’s no denying Villeneuve has succeeded in crafting a smart, gripping and thought-provoking movie that immensley satisfying in its own right.

Runtime: 163 mins (approx.)
Director: Dennis Villeneuve
Screenwriters: Michael Green, Hampton Fancher
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Sylvia Hoecks

Goodbye Christopher Robin – Film Review

One of the most beloved characters in children’s literature, the honey-stealing bear Winnie the Pooh is famous the world over. Far less known is the true story of it’s broken creator, A. A. Milne’s relationship with his son, who provided the inspiration for Pooh’s adventures only to find the burden of fame too much to bear. It’s this tragic father-son relationship that is at the heart of Goodbye Christopher Robin, a warm, charming movie that’s often overwhelmingly moving.

Scripted by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, the story begins with Domhnall Gleeson’s Milne returning to London a changed man. Having fought on the front lines during the Battle of the Somme he comes home in the grips of PTSD, where anything from the clinking of a glass to the buzzing of a bee is enough to transport him back to the horrors he witnessed on the Western Front.

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His attempts to find peace lead him to escape London, moving his wife and son to the countryside where he intends to write an anti-war memoir. Instead, he finds only severe writer’s block and decides to spend more time outside with his son Christopher Robin, who’s imaginative games inspire Milne to pen an entirely different kind of book.

The scenes of father and son playing with sticks or imagining wild safaris through the woods behind their country home are some of the movie’s most joyous moments – and not only for their quaint, sun-soaked Great British Bake Off depiction of early 20th Century England. They also offer a rousing exploration of the magic of play and how the innocence of a child can rescue a man who has seen real nightmares. Watching Milne’s traumas drift further away the more he lets his son into his life is surprisingly affecting.

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That’s in no small measure down to Gleeson’s wonderfully restrained performance. He not only captures Milne’s famously dry wit, but also the near-silent agony of a proud man totally at a loss of how to move on from the devastation he experienced at war. He’s ably joined by Kelly Macdonald who, as Christopher’s tirelessly devoted nanny, is perhaps the film’s biggest hero when she delivers a stirring scolding to the poor boy’s neglectful parents after refusing to bite her tongue a moment longer.

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In fact, the only weak link is Christopher’s highly-strung socialite mother, Daphne. Despite Margot Robbie’s flawless RP accent, Daphne appears cold and distant, abandoning her husband in his time of need and treating her son as her personal play-thing to be picked up or discarded depending on her mood. That feels like a wilful ignorance of Daphne’s own traumas, particularly during childbirth, which were sorely needed to lend understanding to her seemingly heartless actions.

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The most praise must be reserved for Will Tilston, though, who is a revelation as the adolescent Christopher Robin. Whether it’s the unexpected joy of a new toy to play with or the confused anguish of being thrust into the spotlight to sell his father’s books, Tilston sells every emotion perfectly. Which is just as well as the film gradually shifts focus onto Christopher as he struggles to maintain his own identity while his father packages his childhood memories into a book to be flogged to the general public.

Tilston’s excellent work in making Christopher a brightly endearing presence pays off in the film’s bittersweet final scenes where the true devastation caused by his childhood are brutally laid bare. His story might not be as well known as the characters he inspired, but the tale of Christopher Robin is just as moving and impossible to forget.

Runtime: 107 mins (approx.)
Director: Simon Curtis
Screenwriters: Franker Cottrell Boyce, Simon Vaughan
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Will Tilston, Kelly Macdonald