Who doesn’t know J.R.R. Tolkien? However you feel about his insanely imaginative books — and, of course, their epic screen adaptations — you’re surely familiar with the name. Merely dipping into high fantasy now and then, I can’t really call myself an enthusiast like some. However, I do have fierce appreciation of this mastermind’s world-building brilliance.
After some six years of development, the highly-anticipated biopic Tolkien is finally here, revealing where the genius drew his ideas from. While falling shy of the same extraordinary heights as our titular author’s most notable works, Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) has only respect on his mind. Sadly — at odds with the project — Tolkien’s family disagree, declaring they ‘do not endorse it…in any way.’ Ruffled feathers aside, the Finnish director does his best to pay tender homage to the arguable father of modern fantasy and those who affected him.
Tolkien opens with a disturbing set piece; an older John (Nicholas Hoult) desperately hunts for a comrade during the bloodied frenzy of WWI’s Battle of the Somme. From then, a linear narrative rolls forwards, interspersed with context-giving, battlefield flashbacks. Across this time-hopping arc, Karukoski stays chiefly on the author’s early years, contemplating three key influences.
The first of these is a creative group of buddies John (played in youth by Harry Gilby) meets during childhood at a Birmingham orphanage, who together form a lasting ‘fellowship’ — one of many familiar Tolkien references that might just peeve by the end. The second is Edith (Lily Collins), the fellow orphan John falls in love with, and who later becomes his wife. And the third is John’s vocational purpose, as he studies English Language and Literature at Oxford before moving into academia and then authorship.
In this sincere, grounded dramatization of John’s formative years, both these human connections and his time at the renowned university come to inspire the life’s work we know so well. But John’s success as a writer is also shaped by his wartime experiences. Our periodic visits to these distressing moments assist in understanding how the author’s Middle-earth is based on a thread of reality.
Partially thanks to a somewhat formulaic, list-like script by David Gleeson (Don’t Go) and Stephen Beresford (Pride), the film falls victim to an apparent desire to remain within the confinements of a regular biopic. That said, nobody wanted anything imitative of Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. This must have been tempting for Karukoski though, given the parallels between John’s feverish hallucinations and his later creations. In this respect, deft cinematography and visual effects allow for fantastical dragons and beasts akin — but not identical — to those in Peter Jackson’s films.
As a result, Tolkien does feel less staid than many biopics, its poignant score lending a hand to take the edge off more vapid elements. Splashed across these is some much-needed colour from assured, nuanced efforts by Hoult and Collins, their on-screen relationship entirely convincing. An interesting, semi-ambiguous romance elsewhere also draws attention, but my lips are sealed on that. Regrettably, other characters are mildly one-dimensional even if they do serve their purpose.