Film Review – Tolkien
From Game of Thrones to Harry Potter, the lasting influence of fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien is evident. Most of the tropes we’ve come to associate with high fantasy were explored first in his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit novels that were originally published from the 1930s to 50s. Of course, much of his mythology was borrowed or influenced by the poets and legends that date all the way back to Beowulf, but it was his vision of Middle Earth, a world of clans and races who all have their own unique cultures and languages, that shaped the modern perspective of fantasy literature.
With the biographical film Tolkien, director Dome Karukoski presents a very tender and layered portrait of young J.R.R. Tolkien during his years as a student. Before finding success writing his epic sagas, John Ronald Ruel Tolkien was a shy orphan who grew up under the pressures of the British class system as he and his brother struggled to find a way out of poverty through academia. Additionally, Tolkien’s books were greatly influenced by his time fighting as a soldier in World War I, where he saw firsthand the destruction that men are capable of when protecting a resource or a national identity.
Nicholas Hoult stars as the young author when he was a student looking to transition into a position of adulthood that will not only secure his future financially but will satisfy his love of learning new languages and studying legends. Lily Collins plays Edith Bratt, Tolkien’s future wife. She got to know the curious mind as a fellow resident at the same boarding house, where they were both looked after by a kindly priest named Father Francis (Colm Meanie). The chaste society they were both brought up in prevented the two from realizing their feelings for each other until the war separated them for several years. David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford’s screenplay teases their budding romance through the couple’s shared love of the arts.
The other significant love in Tolkien’s life that’s explored in the film is the brotherly love he shared with his school mates for whom he felt were kindred spirits of the modernist intelligentsia. Actors Patrick Gibson, Anthony Boyle, and Tom Glynn-Carney portray the exuberant teens who Tolkien associated with as they looked to challenge the stodgy British education system of their time, often hanging out at a local café, where they discussed the finer points of art, poetry, language, and culture. This fellowship plays an important part in Tolkien’s education as well as his helping him form personal philosophies about what it takes to craft a vision and unique perspective.
I admire Karukoski and the screenwriters’ value of higher learning and intellectualism. It’s rare that we see a coming-of-age movie where the hero’s developing love of knowledge is set at the same level of discussion as their romantic interest for another character. Even the portrayal of romance depicted here is seen through the filter of cultural pursuit and curiosity about education, as Tolkien and Bratt bond over Opera and classical piano. But audiences should not assume that this is a boring or dry historical piece, given its strong emotional engagement with the characters and their bonds as they exit school and enter the military.
Because this is a film about the ‘Lord of the Rings guy,’ the movie does pay some fan service for those looking for fantasy and Middle-Earth imagery. The picture cuts back and forth from the main narrative of Tolkien’s younger school years to his time in World War I, where he’s hiding in the trenches and climbing over bodies trying to find one of his best friends as mortars and gunshots are exploding all around him. In these moments of heightened emotional trauma, Hoult as Tolkien imagines the dragons and orcs and the medieval scenarios that he would later pen into his novels. These sequences are slightly off-base with the dominant plot concerns and unnecessarily breaks the narrative flow. The fantasy visuals, while sometimes painterly and interesting to look at, occasionally come off as a hokey and desperate attempt to appease the core Tolkien fanbase.
This is a strong film about finding purpose in your values, your education, and the people you spend your formative years with. Karukoski does a wonderful job at letting scenes breath and letting the actors lead the camera work through engaging blocking, rather than over cutting or stylizing a sequence to keep the audience entertained. It has been recently reported that Tolkien’s surviving family and the Tolkien estate has rejected the historicity of the picture, but, accurate or not, by no means should that get in the way of the viewer’s experience with this detailed and observant human story.