A Life of Love, Courage, and Fellowship
The mythographer of Middle Earth is himself mythologized in this handsome, romantic biographical drama. Although using the muddy and bloody trenches of World War One France as a framing device (complete with a Samwise-esque batman, played by Craig Roberts, to chivvy Nicholas Hoult’s Tolkien along in his darker moments), our main focus is the someday author’s formative years at King Edward’s School and Oxford, and his romance with his future wife (spoilers for an insanely well-documented life, I guess), Edith Bratt (Lily Collins).
As the presence of Sam the batman indicates, director Dome Karukoski, Tom of Finland (2017), and screenwriters David Gleeson, Cowboys & Angels (2003), and Stephen Beresford, Pride (2014), take pains to connect up not just Tolkien’s biographical details with his eventual fantasy writings (in later life he became famous for two major works, children’s novel The Hobbit, and seminal fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings), but the visual aesthetic of this film with the imagery from his books.
So, we don’t just get the ethereal Edith (played by Mimi Keene as a child, with Harry Gilby as a younger Tolkien) serving as inspiration for Arwen Undómiel/ Evenstar and her fellow elf-ladies, the crucible of World War One inspiring the War of the Ring, and Tolkien’s childhood relocation to Birmingham from his rural idyll being the model for the Scourging of the Shire (possibly a stretch, but it seemed clear to me), but also a battlefield flamethrower shot like dragon’s breath, German cavalry dressed to resemble Nazgûl riders, and so on.
At times it’s a stretch — we see J.R.R. Tolkien as a child hiding from his friends during a game in a way meant to mimic Frodo Baggins hiding from the Black Riders, which seems a bit too cute — but hell, you can’t blame them for giving into the temptation. So much ink has been spilled over the years trying to map how Tolkien’s lived experience influenced his creation of Middle Earth that the creative team’s choice to make that the major thrust of the film makes sense, even if it means we’re mainly dealing with aesthetic echoes and mythic parallels rather than the documented nitty-gritty of the subject’s life.
That may be a contributing factor to the Tolkien Estate’s decision to disavow the film, but frankly, who cares what they want? The artistic utility of approved biographies is dubious at best — see the insipid Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and the muddled Rocketman (2019) for prime examples of films whose key concern is printing the legend for posterity more than saying anything really interesting about their subjects. Not that Tolkien scandalizes the titular scribe, but at least it wasn’t beholden to a committee with vested interests in shaving the rough edges off his life story (well, no more than any decently budgeted mainstream film, at least).
So, there’s kind of an ‘ecstatic truth’ thing going on, to quote Werner Herzog, where the artistic and thematic worth of mapping the channels from Tolkien’s life to his writing outweigh the drier demands of history. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had a circle of close friends in his youth, including Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman/ Anthony Boyle), Robert Quilter Gilson (Albie Marber/ Patrick Gibson), and Christopher Luke Wiseman (Ty Tennant/ Tom Glynn-Carney). Did they ever refer to themselves as a fellowship? Damned if I know (and don’t @ me), but the narrative rhyme is pleasing. Likewise, the older male role models and mentors in Tolkien’s life perhaps weren’t as wizardly as Catholic priest Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney) and Professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi), but I’d prefer to imagine they were. It’s okay to fancy these things, you know — you can keep the poetry of the film separate from the maybe more mundane real-world details. Perhaps it’s vital to do so.
For his part, Nicholas Hoult, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), makes for an engaging and thoughtful Tolkien, a soulful, shy, silently brilliant protagonist whose obvious genius and numerous traumas (he’s orphaned, impoverished, lovelorn, ambitious, and shipped off to war over the course of the film’s modest 111 minutes, and only manages to get the first line of The Hobbit down before the end credits roll) clearly and quietly clash beneath a calm outward surface. He really is one of the best actors of his generation. Thank god he didn’t get lumbered with the Batman gig; now that the X-Men movies are behind him, hopefully he’s in a position to get some really interesting work done going forward.
Meanwhile, Lily Collins is simply luminous as the love of Tolkien’s life, which is kind of par for the course here, but she also steps up when the script allows space for complexity and contradiction. There’s a scene where she lays out for poor, befuddled J.R.R. exactly what kind of life an orphan girl like her can expect and how frustrating it is for someone of her fierce intelligence and ability that’s a showstopper. Compare how she’s used here to how she was used in the recent Netflix biographical thriller, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019), where she was effectively reduced to a supporting role in her character’s own story. In Tolkien, she is literally a supporting character, but a little color and depth go a long way, and she makes the most of it.
Having said that, Tolkien is still a love letter to its subject more than anything else, and although our hero faces plenty of hurdles on his way to historically-mandated greatness, the film still doesn’t conquer the problem that hobbles most artistic biographies, which is dramatizing the actual struggle of artistic creation. Tolkien’s genius is never in doubt here, he just kind of ‘does it,’ rendering down his influences into the creative mana that is his writing, and we’re supposed to take it as read that this is just how it works (not in my experience it doesn’t, let me tell you …). Ah, that’s fine, I guess — there’s only so much you can do, cinematically speaking, with the act of putting pen to paper, although we must wonder if Tolkien’s handwriting was as beautiful and eccentric as the film depicts (you can @ me about that one).
As a film, Tolkien is handsome, sumptuous, and both ambitious and a little shallow. The stick it has copped from various critical corners is a bit baffling — if you’re a fan of the man, or of well-drawn period romances in general, this one will serve you well.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson