★★ / ★★★★
When I see or hear the name “Tolkien,” my mind teleports into a world of overwhelming imagination: colossal dragons keeping terrified knights at bay, aging wizards wielding wands as long as their beards, strange and mystical places, indomitable fellowship, heartbreaking sacrifice, an epic battle between good and evil. It is most disappointing then that this biographical drama about the formative years of John Ronald Ruel Tolkien—J. R. R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult)—is diluted in such a way that by the end it looks and feels so ordinary, the viewer is left to wonder why the man in question is special. I sensed the goal is to create a picture worthy of being taken seriously rather than to remain true to the artistic spirit of its subject.
There is nothing particularly wrong with the performances. Hoult portrays the adult Tolkien with a sense of charisma and flair; when he reads words off books out loud, he made me listen closely to cadence and attitudes of excerpts in the off-chance that what is being read might have impacted the author in surprising ways. But the screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford dedicates so much time in showing the subject either in love or heavy-hearted that his talent for creating languages that roll off the tongue is constantly overshadowed. Hoult is that rare performer who exudes a physical strength and intelligence without having to do much, and so it is strange that the material fails to play upon that strength.
We get it: Tolkien is smitten with fellow lodger Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a pianist who yearns freedom from the woman who decided to take them in following their orphanage. But surely there are many more interesting events in Tolkien’s life outside of the standard romance? For instance, I enjoyed learning about Tolkien’s best friends—Geoffrey the poet (Anthony Boyle), Robert the painter (Patrick Gibson), and Christopher the composer (Tom Glynn-Carney)—and noting their similarities and differences. Although Tolkien does not come from a privileged background, all four Team Club, Barrovian Society (T.C.B.S.) members are artists who yearn to be free of traditional expectations regarding which careers they should pursue. Their parents wish for them to be doctors, lawyers, accountants. Through their fellowship, they encourage each others’ work. To me, this is the more interesting angle of the story.
The movie is also plagued with an unnecessary structural issues. For more than half of its nearly two-hour running time, the story is told in flashbacks. We first lay eyes on the protagonist, feverish and desperate to find Geoffrey the poet in the trenches of the Battle of the Somme. War images are not at all convincing on their own. But to inject fantasy elements on top it is another miscalculation altogether. The point, I suppose, is to juxtapose Tolkien’s inescapable reality with the images in his head waiting to be put on paper. But it is ineffective here because the depiction of the horrors of World War I is not established in the least. Thus, there is no drama, just a choreography of men holding muskets, charging the front lines, explosions, painful screaming.
“Tolkien” is directed by Dome Karukoski, and the project is most effective when two people simply sit down and have a conversation: about societal expectations, about what it means to be young and poor, about language as sound versus language as meaning. I can imagine that the author’s formative years is far more interesting—and challenging—than what this film shows. Otherwise, he would not have created such memorable fantasy epics that have something compelling to say about human nature. In the end, the film is just another Famous Writer movie with minimal personality and vision. It fails to take risks in order to be respectable.