By Karen Gordon
J.R.R. Tolkien is a towering figure in literature and culture. Four of his books, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are fantasy classics, considered masterpieces of English literature and have influenced generations of readers, thinkers and filmmakers.
Rather than deal with how he developed this magical world, with its layers of allegory, and warnings about the dangers of fascism, the film is a quiet period piece and character study. It focuses on the author’s peer relationships and experiences in the First World War, a personal crucible that shaped the man who would grow up to become the great writer.
We see the young John Ronald Tolkien (Harry Gilby/Nicholas Hoult) and his brother Hilary (Guillermo Bedward) experiencing a series of rapid changes in their lives with the death of their father, forcing their mother to move them from their bucolic country home to a cramped apartment in a rough part of industrial Birmingham.
The subsequent death of their mother makes them wards of a Father Francis (Colm Meaney), who moves them into a more physically gracious foster home. That’s where Tolkien first meets another orphan named Edith Bratt (Mimi Keene/Lily Collins), with whom, over the years, he’d develop a deep and abiding relationship.
Despite having little in the way of financial resources, Father Francis finds a good school for the clearly brainy Tolkien, who as a young boy already spoke a number of languages and could recite Chaucer by heart. There he bonds with three other boys, who together form a group called the TCBS, that meet outside of school at an upscale tea room, and plan to change the world through art, writing, poetry and the like
The four continue to meet even as they go their separate ways to University. Tolkien heads to Oxford full of ideas, but confused about his direction. He flounders academically and is in danger of having his funding pulled, which would end his academic career. His scholastic bacon is saved by a chance meeting with a philosophy and languages professor named Joseph Wright (played by the most wonderful Derek Jacobi), who inspires Tolkien to greater goals.
Another influence is World War One. The film is framed by the last days of Tolkien’s time at the Battle of the Somme in France. Tolkien, a second lieutenant, sick with Trench Fever, gets up from his bed to slog through the dangerous trenches in search of a missing friend.
The screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford deliberately stays grounded and very rooted in the Edwardian world, and doesn’t take off in flights of fancy or fantasy. Nor do they deal with Tolkien’s Catholicism, which, had a profound effect on him and on his work. This seems like a major omission
Likewise, director Karukoski keeps the film steady and quiet, giving us an atmosphere of Tolkien as a young man of solid character, in a romantic looking Edwardian England.
From time to time we get the idea of what might have triggered this Oxfordian scholar to create a fantasy world in which to house his ideas. In the scenes at the Battle of the Somme, Tolkien in a fevered state stumbles unarmed onto the battlefield where fire from weapons appears as fire breathing monsters, and smoke from bombs forms into shadow riders and fades away. But these are mere moments in a film that seems obsessed with showing him as an ordinary and kindly man, who knew how to love and who valued friendship and, yes, fellowship deeply.
The movie has far more in common with calm, internally focused British biopics like 2004s Finding Neverland or 2017’s Goodbye Christopher Robin than with Peter Jackson’s intense, exciting cinematic translations of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But if you can accept its modest aims, Tolkien is quietly enjoyable on its own merits.
Tolkien. Directed by Dome Karukoski. Written by David Gleeson and Steve Beresford. Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins and Derek Jacobi.