Do a quick google image search of “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien. Your computer will be flooded with pictures of a dignified old man, pipe clenched in teeth, necktie tightly tied at the neck. A new film, “Tolkien” starring Nicholas Hoult, wants you to think of him not as the distinguished man of letters, the grey-haired creator of Middle-earth, but as a vital young man who looks a lot like Jennifer Lawrence’s ex-boyfriend.
Orphaned and ripped from an idyllic country-side childhood, where he imagined a world of heroic knights and other fantastic adventures, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (played as a youngster by Harry Gilby) and younger brother Harry are relocated to foster homes and boarding schools on the mean streets of Birmingham. It’s during this period meets the folks who would lay the groundwork for his famous literary fellowship—Geoffrey (Anthony Boyle), Christopher (Tom Glynn-Carney), Robert (Patrick Gibson)—and his wife-to-be Edith (Lily Collins). “This is more friendship. It’s an alliance. An invincible alliance.”
At Oxford he studies the classics, and later, English language and literature before being sent to the battlefields of the Somme during World War I. The trenches of the Western Front directly inspired the author’s darkest creations, the Dead Marshes and Mordor, home base of “LOTR” arch-villain Sauron.
Much of “Tolkien” is told in flashbacks, linking together the events and people that fueled his art firmly in a fashion that suggests both nature and nurture are at the heart of the writer’s ability but the very thing that made Tolkien’s literary work so special, the flights of fantasy, the complex character work, are the elements that feel missing from this handsomely mounted biopic. Director Dome Karukoski offers up a standard biography that tries to explain the artistic process in a series of scenes meant to illustrate how Tolkien’s mind worked without ever scratching the surface of where true inspiration comes from.
The movie has several stand-out moments. In the battle scenes plumes of smoke, fire and ash resemble the dragons that Tolkien later wrote about and a quiet, contemplative scene between the writer and the mother of one of his best friends is touching and underlines one of the film’s themes, that art can make the world a better place. In its more playfulness and humorous moments—“It shouldn’t take six hours to tell the story of a magic ring,” complains Chris about Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen opera—you see what the film could have been if it was less restrained.
Hoult is fine in the lead role, presenting the author as a romantic, gifted intellectual—he can recite The Canterbury Tales off the top of his head and translate Old English—who followed his head and heart to worldwide success. Derek Jacobi has a lively cameo as the Oxford professor who recognizes Tolkien’s way with words before anyone else and Collins does nice work as a woman whose life seems predetermined due to class. “I let myself believe there are happy endings for people like us,” she says, “but there aren’t.”
The Tolkien family has renounced the film—in a statement they wrote the family, “do not endorse it or its content in any way.”—not, one images, because it paints an unflattering portrait of its subject but because by and large it’s a standard look at a man who is anything but ordinary.