Take a moment to think about your extraordinary life. Chances are it’s anything but, yet, even if there was a moment of glory in it, I’m willing to bet the whole thing has been uneventful.
Maybe it was lively and full of delight, and still in retrospect its story is the dullest tale ever told. Maybe you were an orphan, gone to war, married the love of your life and forged the strongest friendship with your young, rich and idealist peers. Maybe you’ve invented a language, formed a family, and wrote the fantasy book of excellence that defined every single future fantasy story of the modern age. And yet, the sum of all these efforts, removed of a cohesive context, are just a representation of your character and not a great story to tell.
Thus is the crux of Tolkien.
Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult), battling a gnarly fever in the trenches of World War I, travels to the frontline to find news from his friend Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle), such is the strength of their friendship. From this peculiar frame the film, rather clumsily, cuts back and forth to the other seemingly important moments in his life. Something in those hopeless trenches sparks in Tolkien memories, from his sick mother (Laura Donnelly), to the benevolent Father Francis (Colm Meany) who leaves young Ronald (Harry Gilby) and his younger brother Hilary (Guillermo Bedward) in the care of the eccentric Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris). A moment that could’ve been grounds for a good Dickensian turn, if only real like wasn’t so drab.
The opportunity gives Tolkien the chance for a better education, and to be involved with a group of young and rich dreamers with their minds set to change the world – Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Geoffrey.
Individually the episodes director Dome Karukoski, and writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, chose have the basis of an interesting story, especially the friendship between Tolkien and his group of rich young romantics, is told with such confidence it becomes the essence of the World War I sequence.
There’s a romantic subplot where Tolkien falls for the other orphan in Mrs. Faulkner household, the even more romantic Edith Bratt (Lilly Collins), but it doesn’t work half as well, mainly because it reduces the only strong female character to just being a pawn to our protagonist’s raison d’être. Mostly these episodes come and go without a cohesive through line that sees them work for the benefit of the bigger picture. On their own they are as charming as tea with scones.
Karokski came to this project from Tom of Finland, a stylised and well-rounded account of the life of Finnish artist Touko Valio Laaksonen, that used a nuanced narrative to better sketch the life of its subject. Here it doesn’t even look like the same filmmaker, there’s a lack of grace and methodology that sets it apart from other biopics. It’s not especially bad or offensive, it’s just humdrum.
In one instance the film almost gives us a terrific moment of substance that fails to develop. Tolkien is telling his teacher some of the stories he wrote, when the two are interrupted by another student warning that Britain is going to war. Tolkien continues his task but in the foreground the students jump in joy and celebration that they all get to experience the great glory of war, unaware that most of them, if not all, wouldn’t live past it. It’s such a powerful moment the film barely registers. It feels like it’s there just because that’s what happened, not because it means something, and if we learned anything from Tolkien, what happened isn’t as compelling as our invention.
To compensate for this the writers turn Tolkien into another misunderstood genius who sees the world differently from us. He looks at Edith like she’s an Elven princess, he sees a dragon instead of German flamethrowers (an odd choice since he famously said that his books were not metaphors for his experiences in the front). It reduces him to a caricature he never was. Tolkien was an academic and his inspiration was only internal, not from an explosion in the fields of France.
Twice in the film Tolkien is told an important lesson that will define his future work: “words without meaning are just sounds”. Images are the same, without meaning or context they’re just shapes on a flat surface.
A million of great intentions and some strong sequences. The scenes with the boys in Birmingham is primo Dead Poets Society with a British XIX century twang.
But this story, told this way, leads nowhere. A biopic to work needs the context of its scenes to work on his behalf. And maybe it’s the fact that, as a whole, Tolkien’s life just isn’t that compelling. That certainly was the problem with Ian Curtis and the, even more ordinary Control (2007). Maybe the filmmakers were too engrossed on the details that they forgot the strength of context.
Or maybe we let his work to speak for himself. I’ll know more about Tolkien’s perfectionism and attention to detail from the first 2 pages of The Hobbit than in the entire 1 hour and 52 minutes of this film.