Tolkien explores the formative years of the orphaned author as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school.
Director: Dome Karukoski
Writers: David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford
Stars: Lily Collins, Nicholas Hoult, Patrick Gibson
Closed Captioning and Descriptive Narration Available
Ground zero for a sizable slab of the fantastical, medieval-inspired fanboy adventure genre that’s increasingly dominated pop culture over the past century is the focus of Tolkien, a fastidious, keen-minded look at the tumultuous youth of the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. While snugly fitting within the conventions of respectable British period biographical dramas, the handsome film stresses both the daunting trials he endured — losing both parents very young, a blocked love affair, the trauma of World War I trench warfare, the deaths of best friends therein — and his brilliance as a scholar and incipient creator. Top that off with a charismatic lead turn by the dashing, convincingly smart Nicholas Hoult and Fox Searchlight looks to have a very good specialty item here.
In a rather considerable shift of gears from his last movie, Tom of Finland, Finnish director Dome Karukoski can claim a certain connection to the subject of his new work in that the young Tolkien actually taught himself Finnish (among other obscure and difficult languages) and mined the region’s folklore for elements he later used in his fiction. All the same, this is a very proper English film, down to the correct decorum, laddish hijinks, respect for proprieties and dedication to scholarship. In personality, the pic is far closer to Masterpiece Theatre-style presentations than the imaginative flights of the author the subject eventually became.
Tolkien’s younger years were all but Dickensian in the severity of the boy’s deprivation. Having lost his father in Africa at a wee age, he and his younger brother were not long after orphaned and placed in the care of Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney). While the brother soon becomes an afterthought, young Tolkien blossoms into a keen student at the distinguished King Edward’s School in Birmingham. Matey pranks and foolishness soon morph into close bonds of friendship and purpose, a sort of four musketeers of the mind who vow to “change the world” through “the power of art.” In one of their less inspired moments, they decide to call themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (the three others are exuberantly and sincerely played by Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson and Tom Glynn-Carney).
Tolkien also has the good fortune to meet the bright and attractive Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), an orphan herself, who is a fine and dedicated pianist. They quickly become a mutually adoring couple, seemingly perfectly matched — their dream date (if thwarted in the circumstances) is to attend Wagner’s Ring cycle, which encompasses their dual interests in music and the roots of Northern European mythologies. But when Father Francis notes a decline in the quality of Tolkien’s academic work, he blames it on Edith and warns his charge that he will be expelled unless he ceases seeing Edith until he’s 21. Tolkien sees no choice but to comply.
This is just a foretaste of the tragedy that lies just ahead. Swept into the infantry with the start of the Great War, the brainy boys in 1916 find themselves in the trenches for the ghastly Battle of the Somme. Only two survive, as the landscape of Europe is once again drenched with blood and the future author of any number of colossal battle scenes bears witness to the real thing while barely escaping himself.
Fortunately, screenwriters David Gleeson (Cowboys & Angels) and Stephen Beresford (Pride) don’t belabor the connections between their subject’s experiences and his later creations; the life of the mind is the far more pertinent matter. This is something that’s trickier for films to explore than it is for biographical literature, and Tolkien therefore can only begin to suggest what led this expert on Germanic philology to invent languages, folklore and entire worlds, a talent that finally announced itself with the publication of The Hobbit in 1937.
Rather, the pic focuses more abundantly on the ties that bind within a small group of brainy and exuberant lads, like-minded enthusiasts ready to take on the world, and more deeply on the relationship between Tolkien and Edith. From the outset, these bright children of misfortune seem made for each other — they would appear to be nothing less than each other’s life preservers in a turbulent world — so their forced separation wrenches to the point of seeming an act against nature.
A truly probing work might have more deeply excavated the young Tolkien’s mind and fixations, the impetus that drove him to become so dedicated to Northern European myths, legends and languages, as well as the first inklings of his need to express himself in original ways, in addition to following his natural path as a scholar and teacher (he was a professor at Oxford for 34 years). The movie endeavors to show that certain seeds were planted early, but it would take another two decades for them to sprout and fully flower.
Handsomely made in the customarily fastidious style of most period biographical dramas, Tolkien is strongly served by Hoult, who, after four X-Men outings (and a supporting role in last year’s The Favourite), demonstrates that it’s high time he moved on from that sort of thing to more interesting and challenging dramatic characterizations. With dashingly appealing looks that certainly flatter Tolkien himself and an intelligent bearing, the actor would seem compatible to a very wide range of characters. Collins also comports herself extremely well here in making Edith seem a perfect match for the brainy luminary-to-be.
-Todd McCarthy, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER