When it comes to making films about the greatest…whatever’s…in history, the first question really should be…why? No doubt one of the greatest fantasy stories of the past century has to be John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Already Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Rings is considered a masterpiece of filmmaking. But what about Tolkien himself? Is his life worthy of a film, like his buddy C.S. Lewis? We find the answer in Dome Karukoski’s biographical film, Tolkien.
Tolkien’s life is told in two parts interwoven with one another. The first is during the Battle of Somme in the trenches of World War I. It was one of the bloodiest battles in British history. Suffering from trench fever (almost like the flu), Lieutenant Tolkien forces himself to navigate the trenches toward the front to find his best friend from university, Geoffrey Smith. Weakened by his condition, the artillery blast and gunfire around him slowly wears the soldier down inspiring visions of a book yet to come.
“The boys pledge themselves to not only change the world around them through art, but also dedicate themselves to one another…”
The second part is Tolkien’s life starting with his childhood progressing to enlisting in military service. Early on, Tolkien and his single mother and brother are forced to move to Manchester, not long after the death of his father. His mother was an energetic storyteller inspiring Tolkien’s fascination with faeries and mythology. Murphy’s Law applies, and shortly after moving to Manchester, Tolkien’s mother dies, and the two boys are placed in the care of the church and Father Francis (Colm Meaney). It is in his foster home, where Tolkien meets Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), who would ultimately become his muse.
Enrolled in school, Tolkien is not like the other kids with his fascination with language, so much so, he develops his own mythical language accompanied with illustrations of a fantasy underworld. While in school, he meets three other boys, Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle) to form the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS)—it’s never referred to as a fellowship until the end. The boys pledge themselves to not only change the world around them through art, but also dedicate themselves to one another giving support and courage to grow, improve, and present their art to the world around them. The heart of this film is its the portrayal of the TCBS and the importance of surrounding yourself with peers who will defend you and lift you up.
“…filmmakers didn’t try to pull a Solo and shoehorn Lord of the Rings references throughout Tolkien’s personal narrative…”
While watching Tolkien, I couldn’t help but think, this is an interesting story about the bonds of friendship and the horrors of war, but why did it need to be told? For posterity sake? I kept thinking back at all the events in the film wondering what if anything in his life is so profound to make a movie. To me, one of the most exciting aspects of Tolkien’s life was his Christian faith, and that is completely ignored, except for the idea that the church prevented him from being with his true love, Edith.
One thing I did appreciate about the film is how the filmmakers didn’t try to pull a Solo and shoehorn Lord of the Rings references throughout Tolkien’s personal narrative. You see the inspiration for essential elements of the story, but nothing is presented in a groan-worthy wink-of-the-eye manner. “Hey look, Wagner’s Ring and the ‘one ring’…get it?”
As far as the film goes, it’s not bad. Nicholas Hoult and the rest of the cast is fine. I loved seeing Colm Meaney again particularly with a DS9 documentary coming out soon. As far as its storytelling, it’s good but rarely rises to the level of inspiring. Fans of Tolkien are going to find a nice, comfortable place in this film, but walk away feeling like they could have dug deeper into this life.
Tolkien (2019) Directed by Dome Karukoski. Written by David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford. Starring Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi.
7 out of 10 stars