Review: “Tolkien”

2.5 out of 5 stars.

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most renowned writers of all time.  His “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, published in the mid-1950s, set the standard for modern fantasy, and continue to be beloved by fans to this day.  It took an incredible amount of imagination to write create Middle-Earth, right down to inventing entire languages for races like the elves.  Unfortunately, the same amount of imagination wasn’t applied to “Tolkien,” a biopic that focuses primarily on John Ronald Reuel’s early life, experience in fighting in World War I, and his romance with future wife Edith Bratt.

Directed by Dome Karukoski, the film begins in Tolkien’s (played by Harry Gilby) childhood.  His mother and brother move to England from Africa after his father’s death, but when he mother dies as well, Tolkien and his brother are taken under the wing of Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney), who pushes him to get an education.  While at school, Tolkien befriends a group of boys—Christopher, Robert, and Geoffrey—and they form a society they call the T.C.B.S.: Tea Club and Barrovian Society.  They held secret meetings at Barrow’s Stores near their school, they ultimate plan being to change the world through art.  As Tolkien grew older (played by Nicholas Hoult), he began to develop his writing skills while also falling in love with his fellow lodger Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), but his lower class origins and the onset of World War I threaten to tear his romance and the fellowship he’s formed with his friends apart.

John Ronald (Nicholas Hoult) and Edith Bratt (Lilly Collins)

Unlike many biopics, “Tolkien” actually does get a lot of the basic facts about his life straight.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t convey these in a very engaging way.  The film looks pretty, with beautiful period settings and costumes, and the actors all do a fine job (Derek Jacobi, who plays an Oxford professor, has a couple really fun scenes with Hoult).  We also occasionally see the world and characters of Middle-Earth from the eyes of Tolkien as scenes from the real world inspire him, but these sometimes feel more contrived to please fans than anything else.  But the film doesn’t try any harder than that to imbue the story with any more imagination or creativity, opting instead for a very straightforward and formulaic approach that presents information without diving too deep into the characters or really exploring Tolkien’s writing process, outside of a few conversations about the languages he’s creating.  At times, it’s even rather dull.   

Tolkein (Nicholas Hoult) surrounded by his various drawings and writing

But it gets a more important thing wrong: the inspiration behind Tolkien’s writing, particularly his creation of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”  The film really hits its stride when we get to the war scenes at the end; in contrast to the staid proceedings up to that point, they are shockingly gruesome, and the scenes following that, showing Tolkien struggling to recover from the war emotionally, are well done.  But by that point in the film it’s too little too late, and moreover, there’s a heavy implication that his experiences in war inspired a large part of “Lord of the Rings”—something that Tolkien refuted repeatedly in his lifetime. Meanwhile, the film minimizes the role religion played in Tolkien’s life.  What could have been an interesting exploration of the mind of one of the greatest writers of all time instead resorts to bending the facts to better serve the story on screen.

But Tolkien’s relationship with his friends and with Edith really did inspire him, and that is conveyed in this movie as well.  Hoult and Collins are good together, as is Hoult with the other members of the T.C.B.S. (played by Anthony Boyle, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Patrick Gibson) who interact with the closeness of real-life friends.  It’s too bad that the film didn’t take more risks like the man whose life it depicts, but at least it got one thing right: the importance of friendship.

Runtime: 112 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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