I enjoyed Tolkien but it was slight, fairly truncated and only a surface level focus on the author’s early life, despite good performances from Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins.
We follow young “Ronald” Tolkien (Harry Gilby and then Nicholas Hoult) as he experiences a series of life changing experiences in childhood and young adulthood, including meeting the love of his life Edith (Lily Collins) and fighting in WW1. His love for languages and stories builds on his experiences, friendships and love into his life changing creation of Middle-earth.
This is not a comprehensive focus on Tolkien’s entire life – it’s a small section that is perhaps the most significant, but a lot of people might go in expecting more, like I did. Director Dome Karukoski and writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford do an able job with the time they depict – and the sheer misfortunes Tolkien faced in his younger life – but by its very nature the film feels cut off, almost abrupt.
This was obviously a conscious choice but it means a lot of what you’re waiting for isn’t there, and it’s a shame because it robs the film of notable, later life events. It also plays fast and loose with other elements for dramatic effect; though it’s not a complete reimagining, and deserves credit for the sincerity taken in painting the man, those closest to him and the toll the world takes on them.
What the writers achieve is a marriage of real life recollections and events mixed with a more lyrical air. This is notable in his early relationship with Edith, and the way the two orphans found each other; and also in the strong friendships with his three schoolfriends, and their shared love of the arts – a deep, platonic fellowship (fully intended use of that word) rarely given respect in films.
Where it stumbles is in rather ham handed depictions of Middle-earth amidst the horrors of the trenches. It’s not up for debate that Tolkien was influenced by his experiences, and some interlinkings are clever and distinctive (a flamethrower and a dragon particularly). At other times though it jars, especially given the huge emotional toll the events took – and unintentionally feel like lazy connective tissue.
Scenes in mainland Europe amid the horror are impactful, cleverly intercut with earlier events by editor Harri Ylonen. Karukoski and the writers don’t sugarcoat the brutality in those scenes, and their impact on Tolkien – and on his generation – are clear to see. Other settings are given a strong visual flavour by cinematographer Lasse Frank, from the dreaming spires of Oxford and the sumptuous forests of the Black Country, through to the industrial hell of Birmingham circa 1910.
What the lighting and staging do is force home the impact the natural world had on Tolkien, and how industrial cities and warfare tempered this. Vibrant colours set this film apart from other films set in the era, which are often too quick to dull everything down – even the WW1 scenes here feature bold colours, a rarity among its contemporaries.
A surprise (not a good one) was the overly ethereal score from Thomas Newman, who I expected might have done better. He tries too hard to ape that feeling of Middle-earth, elven magic and wonder without intruding on Howard Shore’s epic scores, and only intermittently hits the spot.
The casting does go a long way towards improving the film, with Nicholas Hoult (and Harry Gilby as the younger Tolkien) giving good, considered performances. Hoult succeeds at conveying an unnatural aptitude with the magic of language, and a burning desire to prove himself after building up from nothing. This is reinforced by his Tolkien in his more intimate, emotional moments with his friends and Edith, showing a man dealt a fair amount of bad luck who works hard to do what he loves, and love who he wants to love, come what may.
Lily Collins is equally good as Edith, the slowly growing relationship dotted with nice personal (and authentic to the real couple) moments in tearooms and on walks. Tolkien was absolutely devoted to her, and Collins shows that the inspiration for the elvish princesses was not as passive as her husband wrote them to be. She’s filled with a ferocity at the way society forces her to be, as well as at Tolkien himself, the actress having the elfin looks but tingeing her performance with an underlying passion.
While the three friends are played by young and old actors, the elder three have more impact, specifically Anthony Boyle as Geoffrey Bache Smith, Tolkien’s closest, supportive poet friend who seems haunted by what might come. Patrick Gibson plays boorish oaf Robert Gilson with a hefty amount of public school arrogance and camaraderie, while Tom Glynn-Carney as Christopher Wiseman trades in smarm and not a little jealousy.
Importantly, you believe all four are strongly bonded friends, which means their performances are believably good together, forming an emotional and inspirational roles in Tolkien’s life and later career.
A series of famous British actors and actresses make up the supporting cast, including Craig Roberts as Sam, a soldier helping Tolkien in the trenches (and a clear inspiration for another Sam); Pam Ferris as the orphans’ overly traditional governess; Derek Jacobi as a believably eccentric Oxford professor; Colm Meaney as a firm but fair priest acting as guardian and overseer of Tolkien; and Owen Teale as an overly strict headmaster.
I did enjoy this, for obvious reasons having been a huge Middle-earth nerd and a bookworm brought up in Oxford! I thought it was very good when focusing in on his story, the people and the relationships between them all; but felt it laid the symbolism on a little too thick, and cut off too early in the life of an interesting man.