Synopsis: Tolkien explores the formative years of the orphaned author as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school.
Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Craig Roberts, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Genevieve O’Reilly, Laura Donnelly, Pam Ferris, Sir Derek Jacobi
Director: Dome Karukoski
Running Length: 112 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: As biopics of famous authors have proved, finding a way to depict the life of someone so renowned for his or her storytelling can be a tricky game. One needs only to look at the curious flatness of Goodbye Christopher Robin, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Becoming Jane, or even as far back as 2003’s Syliva, to see that a screenwriter has their work cut out for them if they want to take on a well-known literary scribe. On name recognition alone, J.R.R. Tolkien is by far one of the bigger names to get the “this is your life” treatment on the big screen and for a man who was so closely associated with fantasy it’s rather pleasant to note his biopic is one that is most grounded in reality.
The life of Tolkien could easily have been covered as a multi-part mini-series on HBO, Netflix, or Amazon Prime (where they are getting ready to film their own series based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels) because the man certainly lived a life. Raised with his younger brother by a poor single mother who died when he was 12, he went to live in an upper-class boarding house that afforded him the opportunity to go to a good school and get into a prestigious university. Marrying his first love before serving in the war, he returned home to teach and began writing the novels that would be his legacy. These events even read like the plot of a movie we’ve all seen before and would seem to lend itself well to a similar treatment, which would have been just fine. Thankfully, the filmmakers took a different approach.
The movie centers on the friendship that develops between Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies) and three other young men he meets in school and remains close with as they go to college and join the war effort. At first an outcast from the boys in his class, Tolkien eventually finds they are really no different from him with their own set of personal problems in life and at home. Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson, The Darkest Minds) is the headmaster’s son living in the heavy shadow of his emotionally withdrawn father, Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney, Dunkirk) struggles to make a name for himself as a musician, and Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle, The Lost City of Z) is a sensitive poet who becomes Tolkien’s closest friend.
Screenwriters David Gleeson & Stephen Beresford (Pride) give us a light sketch of the early life of Tolkien and a brief dab of his post-War life but their film mostly focuses on his teenage years through his time at the Battle of the Somme. For director Dome Karukoski, this is more than enough meat to cook a fine feast that doesn’t rely on trickery (or much pre-knowledge of the author) to be fulfilling. While there are some interesting visual cues during Tolkien’s war experience that veer to the fantastical, such as seeing dragons in fire raids or ominous evils in plumes of smoke, Karukoski’s movie has its feet on the ground. I was bracing myself for the movie to feature hints along the way of how Tolkien came up with the stories and characters that would earn him a place in the history books. Thankfully, aside from a wise teacher that has a twinkle of Gandalf in his eye, there’s no crusty janitor at Oxford that could have inspired Gollum nor is there a squat gentleman at the local pub enjoying a fine meal who reminds us of Bilbo Baggins. No, the screenwriters and director have held back on being too on-the-nose with these elements and have conveyed instead how the books came out of the collective whole of Tolkien’s life up until the point he put pen to paper.
While it doesn’t exactly stretch his range, Hoult’s performance as Tolkien is admirable in its presentation because many general fans of the author likely aren’t too aware of the personal life of the man behind the majestic worlds he created. So there’s a bit of freedom for Hoult to make the role, more or less, his own. Whether he’s muddied up on the battlefields, in natty tweeds lounging around Oxford, or walking through the woods talking to trees, he always seems to be on the right track. As his sweetheart and eventual wife, Lily Collins (Mirror Mirror) turns in her best performance to date by giving some decent nuance to a role that could easily have been tossed away as the “supportive spouse” part. Recognizing her limitations in society, Edith’s one night out with the boys turns from joy to sadness as she realizes that she’ll never (in her lifetime) be able to have the same privileges as the man she loves. If there’s anything that feels truncated in the film, it’s the love affair between Tolkien and Edith which is the first thing to take a backseat in favor of other plot points.
All three of Tolkien’s friends provide good supporting performances, namely Boyle as Tolkien’s best ally and the one he desperately tries to find during the war. Hoult and Boyle have some good scenes together, as does Holt with Genevieve O’Reilly (The Kid Who Would Be King) as Geoffrey’s mother who sadly comes to realize she doesn’t know her son as well as his friends do. In his few brief scenes, Sir Derek Jacobi (Tomb Raider) challenges Tolkien to push himself further as a writer/scholar and it’s not too hard to discern where the genesis of a certain white wizard came from. The only nitpick I have is that there’s a lot of dark-haired guys in the film and during some of the war scenes it was hard to keep track of who was who.
Arriving in the still massive wake of the Avengers: Endgame box-office juggernaut, I fear Tolkien might get lost in the mix because it’s not loud enough to attract much attention outside of fans of the author that know it’s coming. There was some buzz in the news a few weeks back when it came out that Tolkien’s family did not endorse the film, though they hadn’t even seen it at that time. While that may give you pause to see this film, it’s helpful to know that most biographies don’t have the support of the family and sometimes that allows the author of the work to, sure, take a few liberties with the material but also not be as beholden or precious to their subject. In the case of Tolkien, it’s clear everyone involved had a great respect for the late author (he died in 1971) and were invested in this tale of his first valued fellowship.