A world on fire, forests in ruins, and young lads off on what seems like a grand adventure but turns into a life-altering tragedy. These are just a few of the aspects that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien used to define our modern understanding of high-fantasy in the last hundred years. They’re present in The Hobbit and defining in The Lord of the Rings. However, they were also overwhelming in his own life as he came of age among the last guard of the British Empire. When Tolkien entered Oxford on a scholarship in 1911 to study classics (before wisely changing to English language and literature), his own struggles were in the backdrop of an old world with one foot still firmly set in the 19th century and all the ages of yore that seemed to place a European order at the center of it. By the time he left school to serve in the British Army, the First World War had begun, heralding the true beginning of the 20th century and the horror that undergirded Tolkien’s idyllic flights of fancies.
In its best moments, Tolkien, a respectful and handsomely crafted biopic, honors that transition of not only boy to man, and student to genius, but also a transition to a future that had Tolkien spend the rest of his lifetime looking to the past, imagining appealing “what ifs” and a harrowing “what now?” Otherwise a very straightforward biopic about an artistic genius trying to realize his Great Expectations, particularly in the last vestiges of Edwardian England, it is the sense of melancholy loss and a snapshot of British privilege’s last unchallenged gasp that makes Tolkien a worthwhile journey.
That rather expected odyssey is told in a crosscutting framing narrative for most of the film’s 112-minute running time, with a beleaguered and wearied Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) attempting to command men in the trenches of the Somme, and his memories of a youth that began with his and a younger brother’s early orphanage before swiftly becoming an entire adolescence defined by boarding schools, academic achievement, and a religious fervor of gaining a scholarship to Oxford.
Played as a rather strapping young academic by Hoult, Tolkien’s own tug-of-war between personal and professional achievement is defined by the pressures of his priest Father Morgan (Colm Meaney) and the only other tenant of note in his boardinghouse, the lovely Miss Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a dutiful if quietly willful young woman. Edith is relegated to her likely real-life stature of being a woman of artistic ambition who is thwarted by a social order that only allows her freedom from her guardian’s ownership when Tolkien takes her to events like (what else?) Wagner’s Ring Cycle opera.
However, as much with Tolkien’s fiction, this soft-spoken retelling of his youth is most intriguing when encompassing the budding author’s sense of fellowship and camaraderie. As a boy of limited means, it is Tolkien’s intellect and passion for languages that impresses his wealthier schoolmates enough to become a founding member of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (T.C.B.S.), a made-up brotherhood with three other artistically minded students. The type of lads who enjoyed turning their afternoon coffee shop sojourns into semi-secret adventures, they followed each other through creative endeavors, romantic setbacks, including Tolkien being required to initially give up the love of his life because of her Protestant background, Oxford expulsions, and finally the Great War. A war several of them did not return from.
Tolkien is steadfastly a literary biopic in the traditional cinematic sense. Embracing the stiff-upper lip quality of Tolkien’s Oxford background to nearly a fault, the film treads very familiar territory. Yet more so than many similar projects, the movie finds a genteel beauty in its wistfulness by leaning on the fact that this is a world that was slipping away from the author by mechanized means far crueler than any story of orcs grinding up trees. Hence the film is at its strongest when celebrating the grandeur of intelligence and achievements in a library instead of a battlefield. Sequences of special note involve quiet strolls through Oxford grounds where Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) introduces language as a field of study to Tolkien with the gentle gravitas of Gandalf showing Frodo the wonders of Rivendell.
In this vein, Tolkien attempts to extrapolate from the real-life a chaste and romantic longing between the boy and a girl who is his quietly trapped intellectual peer. Both ably played by Hoult and Collins, the film echoes some of the ethereal quality of Viggo Mortensen’s elfin dalliances in the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings adaptation. But despite the very accurate strains of class and background tearing at this couple, neither performer can fully overcome that romance in life, like his stories, always seems an understated subplot. In earnest, it is Tolkien’s passions for friends like G.B. Smith (Anthony Boyle) and Rob Gilson (Patrick Gibson) wherein director Dome Karukoski’s picture finds its deepest tenderness and feeling, which is compounded when Tolkien is searching for some of them on the battlefield.
Occasionally gilding the lily too vividly when WWI carnage gives way to visions of actual smoking monsters in its subject’s mind’s eye, the sense of totality and loss felt by a generation, and its acutely personal POV, also allows a wholeness to Tolkien’s romantic if old-fashioned sweep. Hovering around a man who was himself nothing if not old-fashioned in a world of upheaval, Tolkien finds a thin chivalric line in honoring the man with a gaze as dreamy as the movie’s saturated shots of English forests following French battlefields. Drinking deeply of contrasts, between life and art, love and war, fellowship and hate, Tolkien casts a small enchantment in its archetypal reverie.
Tolkien opens May 10.