Literary biopic fast-forwards through author’s youth
Directed by Dome Karukoski
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Laura Donnelly, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi
Though it focuses its attentions on fan fave fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien—hotter than ever in the wake of Peter Jackson’s multi-billion dollar movie franchise—the Brit lit biopic Tolkien is aimed most squarely at the well-mannered BBC set. Those hoping for geeky insider info into the creation of Tolkien’s most enduring literary legacy, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, are advised to quest elsewhere. Those looking for some polite costume drama and a quick run-through of turn-of-the-century British history will find satisfactory fulfillment.
The film begins with poor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) stumbling, feverish and shell-shocked, through the waning days of World War I. Stuck on the nightmarish Western Front, he’s desperate to get in touch with one of his friends, a fellow officer who’s lost somewhere out in that maze of trenches and muddy fields. But all he can seem to do is stare up at the smoke-filled sky and despair. This takes us, as you might expect, on a flashback tour of Tolkien’s life story.
We start out our more-or-less accurate bullet-pointed presentation in the small English village of Sarole where young Tolkien lives with his beloved mother and baby brother. His father having passed away in Africa of rheumatic fever, Tolkien and his family live in poverty. But not ignorance. Mrs. Tolkien (Laura Donnelly) has home-schooled her sons well in the classics. (Young Ronald can recite Chaucer from memory.) But when mom herself passes away (from diabetes), siblings Ronald (Harry Gilby) and Hilary (Guillermo Bedward) find themselves wards of the local church.
The boys are sent to a rooming house for orphans. There, Ronald meets fellow motherless child Edith Bratt (Mimi Keene) with whom he forms a lifelong infatuation. Ronald also finds kinship with a trio of students from King Edward’s School, all of whom share a love for rugby and art.
As they grow into young men and move on to prestigious Oxford university, the boys form an informal Dead Poets Society-type group dedicated to painting, writing and poetry. These frivolous pursuits are frowned upon, of course, by various upper crust parents. As Ronald (parent free since 1904!) pursues his love for language in college, however, he also pursues his love for Edith (played as a young woman by Phil Collins offspring Lily Collins). Eventually, in an effort to tie its various plot threads together, Tolkien and his idealistic mates are drafted into fighting for Mother England in The War to End All Wars.
While the plot for Tolkien isn’t exactly episodic, it does unfold in several somewhat isolated chunks. There’s the schoolboy coming-of-age stuff. There’s the romantic segments, which play out like a cross between Shakespeare in Love and the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. There’s a bit of the film that turns all academic, centering on Tolkien’s talent for philology and storytelling. And then there’s all the World War I drama with its mustard gas and mortar fire.
With so many different stories to tell, none of the individual segments have much room to come fully to life. The film wants very much to show us some of the elements that went into Tolkien’s famed literary creations. But that’s actually outside the scope of this film’s timeframe. Instead, all we get are hints. As a child Tolkien is whisked from pastoral Worcestershire (it’s just like Hobbiton!) to industrial Birmingham (it’s just like Mordor!). Later on, on the battlefields of Europe, Tolkien watches German soldiers torching embattlements with flamethrowers transform into Smaug and cavalry officers cutting down soldiers become Nazgul.
Director Dome Karukoski (whose last film was the naughty biopic Tom of Finland) shoehorns as much visual flair into the film as his modest budget will allow—which isn’t a lot, really. But, hey, a dragon! Ultimately, the film’s symbolism and foreshadowing come across as a ham-handed and reductive (and entirely speculative) way of showing the author’s inspiration. (To say nothing of the real-life Mr. Tolkien’s frequent insistence that his books had “no allegorical intentions” and were “not about modern wars.”)
The cast looks and feels correct. Hoult (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Warm Bodies, Mad Max: Fury Road) has the right nerdy charisma, and Collins is a fetching enough choice for love at first sight. Theirs is a perfectly likable, root for-able romance. Weirdly, however, it’s the academic stuff that stands out the strongest. For a movie loaded with both romance and war, the drama of changing one’s college major would seem like small potatoes. And yet, it’s these moments of intellectual excitement that feel like Tolkien’s best moments—and biggest missed opportunities. Sir Derek Jacobi shows up, by way of example, as a philology professor whose linguistic enthusiasms spark Tolkien’s ambitions. Jacobi’s short-but-spirited performance is the best in the film and could have served as a roadmap to a more focused, less cliché-reliant “portrait of the artist as a young man.” No doubt, however, those behind the camera felt that some kissing and some killing were necessary to hold audience attention.