It’s no simple walk through Mordor as we get a glimpse at the early years of The Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien in Tolkien.
There’s a lot of flashing back in the film between the J.R.R. Tolkien’s (Harry Gilby/Nicholas Hoult) childhood, college days, and World War 1. These childhood bonds do play a role when it comes to creating the fellowship in the books. An orphan upon entering King Edward’s School in Birmingham at age 12, the future author would become fast friends with the three other students, Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle). The four of them would go on to start the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS). The WW1 portion of the film mainly shows Tolkien on a quest to find his friend, Geoffrey Smith. One can make the argument that this very quest is what kept him alive during the Battle of the Somme in France.
At Mrs. Faulkner’s boarding house, the author would meet fellow orphan Edith Bratt (Lily Collins). Naturally, the two of them would blossom romance with each other. Edith would go on to play a large part in his life, especially his work. This love story came to an unfortunate end when Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney) forced Tolkien to choose between Oxford and love. He chose Oxford and would regret his decision every day. Things soon change just before he departs for war. This moment could honestly have come out of every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen.
Between TCBS–who mantra is Helheimr–and Edith, we certainly see the strong foundation for what would become The Lord of The Rings. We don’t really see much of his writing process although we do see the author staring off in the distance. This results in seeing fire-breathing dragons, fights, and whatnot appearing on screen. I would have loved to see more of the writing process on screen. Instead, we just get something in the closing minutes. Tolkien is addressing his family about the start of a story that he’s working on. We see him take pen to paper while writing down “In a hole in a ground, there lived” before saying “a Hobbit” off screen. This being Bilbo Baggins, of course.
I do want to say this about the casting. Harry Gilby, who portrays the author as a child, is a perfect match for Nicholas Hoult. It’s so uncanny that the two of them look so similar. On first glance, I almost thought that they de-aged Hoult through the CGI process!
No matter the running time, the trick to biopics is narrowing down a particular time period. This is what sets apart the great biopics from the mediocre ones. Taking this into account, the problem with Tolkien is we don’t really reach the headliner until the film’s final minutes. A film like Mary Shelley gives us the headliner earlier but drags its way before getting there. Don’t get me wrong here. Unfortunately, the real meat of this is just too little, too late.
We’ve seen various author biopics over the years. I’m starting to think that we might never be able to solve the best way to tell their stories. What we do know about the film is that the author’s family does not endorse the new film. Would John Ronald Reuel Tolkien approve of the film or the commercialization of the world he created? That’s certainly not for me to say. What I do know is this–Tolkien could certainly be told better.
DIRECTOR: Dome Karukoski
SCREENWRITERS: David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford
CAST: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, and Derek Jacobi