Billed as an origin story for the man who went on to write The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, Tolkien is one of those biopics that leans heavily on dramatic irony and foreknowledge of its subject. Nicholas Hoult plays John Ronald, a young man who finds love, fellowship, and maybe, the film posits, a whole bunch of inspiration for the stuff you already know about.
Framed by an apocalyptic ordeal at the Somme at the height of World War I, the film goes there and back again between his life-long friendship with the close circle of classmates who call themselves the Tea Club Barrovian Society (TCBS for short), his star-crossed courtship with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), and his experience of the “animal horror” of the trenches alongside his lieutenant (Craig Roberts), who goes by the name of Sam.
To give credit where it’s due, director Dome Karukoski and cinematographer Lasse Frank deliver some truly dazzling moments in Tolkien. The film’s main visual motif starts with a beat that’s recognisable to anyone who has ever had trouble sleeping when they were a child. The young John Ronald looks up from his bed and sees the shadows of branches cast across his ceiling. As though frightened by the imaginary claws, he rolls over and looks away.
Just by the combination of light and images, this is an utterly cinematic choice that evolves over the course of the film. You’ll have noticed that many of these moments have been stripped of their context and piled into the trailer in a bid to attract a wider audience.
Still, the return of this device when Tolkien stumbles through the battle of the Somme, where officers on horseback appear like lone rangers, clouds of black smoke move in a wraithlike fashion, and a vision of evil incarnate blooms explosively over the carnage, is breathtaking. It’s just a shame that these well-chosen beats are the only times the film ever comes to life.
Although Karukoski successfully evokes the iconography of The Lord Of The Rings (borrowing from both Peter Jackson’s films and Alan Lee’s illustrations), it’s a far more unguarded moment that springs to mind. Unfortunately, it’s the part of The Fellowship Of The Ring when Ian Holm’s Bilbo Baggins reflects on his long life and says that he feels “like butter spread over too much bread”.
Playing like a reverse Walk Hard, this refreshingly unsensational biopic sadly doesn’t seem to have much regard for the incidents it portrays outside of how they relate to those books and (more prominently) those movies that people liked. In the process, it manages to reduce both the life of its subject and his role in one of the most devastating conflicts of the 20th century to background dressing on the long and winding road to recognition.
In some moments, the film even inadvertently shows the real reason it got greenlit. When a character suddenly snarks “It shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring” about Wagner’s Ring Cycle, it’s a jolting reminder that it’s less about the person who wrote the books than it is about the person who wrote the books that inspired the movies.
The scale of the film is about right – this isn’t Bohemian Rhapsody and it’s better for it. The trouble is that getting closer to the characters brings no more insight or intimacy. There’s really not much warmth or feeling to be had here, despite the best efforts of Hoult and Collins in the lead roles. Between her work here and her turn as Ted Bundy’s girlfriend in another film released last week, it’s a reminder that Collins is far, far better than playing the love interest for “historically significant” men of such wildly varying stripes.
In a film that hardly ever feels personal, it’s the younger versions of the TCBS that really shine here. Harry Gilby, Adam Bregman, Albie Marber and Ty Tennant have a fantastic, easily enjoyable rapport that’s crucial to the rest of the film, even if the older members of the ensemble aren’t able to match it later.
While the school-aged flashbacks are similarly retro-fitted into the film’s central thesis, they’re easy to forgive when put alongside the reverent connecting-of-the-dots that makes up the rest of the running time. During some of the more emotional callbacks later on, there’s a detached efficiency that sadly characterises the film as a whole.
Despite decent performances and some visually striking filmmaking, Tolkien is far less than the sum of its parts. It may serve as an overdue palate cleanser for aficionados who were left cold by the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better” Hobbit movie trilogy, but it’s quite dry and pious with it. It constantly grasps for real-life poetry by rhyming incidents with iconography, but it’s that rare case where you wish they could have sent a documentarian instead.
Tolkien is in cinemas now.