As fascinated as we are with great writers, the cinematic appeal of watching someone put pen to paper, clack away on a manual typewriter is at best negligible. Still, award-winning Finnish director Dome Karukoski chose renowned writer J.R.R. Tolkien as the subject of his first English language film. Tolkien’s actual writing time on screen is mostly limited to a single shot at the film’s conclusion; however, the script from David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford attempts to connect the dots between his real-world life to his Middle-earth characters and adventures from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Harry Gilby portrays the young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and then Nicholas Hoult stars from college age forward. The film bounces between Tolkien’s childhood as an orphan, his elite private school education at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, matriculating at Oxford University and soldiering in WWI. It’s during his stay at Ms. Faulkner’s (Pam Ferris) boarding house when he meets Edith Blatt, the love of his life. While attending prep school, he and three friends: Robert Gilson, Christopher Wiseman and (poet) Geoffrey Smith, form the TCBS (Tea Club and Borrovian Society), a club dedicated to changing the world through art. It’s at Oxford where Tolkien’s love of language kicks into a yet higher gear, though it’s during his time in The Somme – one of the deadliest battlefields of WWI, that we see his ‘trench fever’ contribute to many of the visuals later associated with his books.
Lily Collins portrays Edith at the age where Tolkien must choose between her and his Oxford education, but as often happens with true love, the two later reconnect and remain married until her death. This film doesn’t cover their later years and instead focuses on the formative ones – both for his imagination and their relationship. We see his early childhood games (The Shire inspired from his time in Sarehole outside Birmingham) and the film often slaps us with an ‘obvious stick’ on how certain segments of life translate directly to his familiar stories in future years. In fact, there is no mention of C.S. Lewis and The Inklings – his friends who later supported his writing efforts. We do, however, get a sequence with Tolkien and Edith backstage at Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle” Opera…a dot that requires the simplest of connectors.
The film looks terrific – especially in the battle scenes which are staged dramatically and horrifically (much as we imagine the war was) by cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannesson. Unfortunately, that’s the highlight. This is mostly a generic biography of an extraordinary writer. Adding to the frustration is the fact that Nicholas Hoult recently portrayed reclusive writer J.D. Salinger in Rebel in the Rye…roles too similar for the same actor.
The Hobbit was published in 1937 and The Lord of the Rings trilogy in 1954-55, the latter being the best-selling fiction of all-time before being overtaken by JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series. Tolkien’s key seems to have been his lifelong fascination with language. He even created his own – not just words, but complete languages. That would likely have made a better focus here. Seeing the foundation of “the fellowship” was somewhat interesting, although much of that segment came across like a poor man’s Dead Poets Society. Supposedly the Tolkien family has refused to endorse the film, likely placing the script “In a hole in the ground…”