REVIEW: ‘Tolkien’ is More than Just a Standard Biopic

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J.R.R. Tolkien has long been famous for penning his Middle Earth series, which includes The Lord of the Rings trilogyThe Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. But Tolkien, the biopic from Fox Searchlight and director Dome Karukoski turns its focus on the author’s early years, specifically his teens and early twenties before his fantasy world took the world by storm.

Tolkien eschews the linear narrative that most biopics take, intercutting between Tolkien’s school years and the time he spent at the Battle of Somme during World War I.  When his father dies in South Africa and his mother passes away shortly after, Tolkien and his younger brother end up in the care of Father Francis (Colm Meaney) and sent to the prestigious King Edward’s school in Britain. While there, Tolkien meets Geoffrey Bach Smith (Anthony Boyle), Christopher Weisman (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Robert Q. Gilson (Patrick Gibson) , becoming fast friends and form the Tea Club and Barovian Society (T.C.B.S. for short). Later on, an older Tolkien (Nicolas Hoult) struggles with his desire to attend Oxford and his budding romance with fellow boarder Edith (Lily Collins) as Father Francis feels she is interfering with his schoolwork.

Tolkien’s major strength is its cast, particularly the chemistry between Hoult and Collins. Hoult plays Tolkien as a brilliant, yet awkward young man obsessed with language in all its forms. That obsession is what stokes the fire of his creativity, as he frantically scribbles drawings and stories in his notebook. Collins plays Edith as a love interest and the foil to Tolkien.

She challenges him, she urges him to break out of his comfort zone, and she is just as eager to pursue her passion for music as he is to pursue his studying. During a scene where Tolkien takes Edith backstage because he cannot afford seats to a Wagner opera, she pulls on one of the costumes and tries her own impression at singing, and he eventually joins in. It’s not hard to see why they fell for and eventually married each other.

I wish the same treatment had been afforded to the members of the T.C.B.S. Though their personalities are spelled out in broad strokes, with Weisman playing the jester, Smith recalcitrant about his poetry and Gilson struggling to live up to his father’s expectations. That being said, we rarely see them in the film unless they’re with Tolkien. These were his friends, they inspired him, he even calls them a “Fellowship.” I’d have liked to see more of that-especially as they all ended up enlisting in WWI.

Speaking of fellowship, as expected there are several references to Tolkien’s body of work. These homages are at their best during the WWI portions of the film, as Karukoski and cinematographer Lasse Frank transform the horrors of war into the fiery landscape of Mordor. Enemy soldiers transform into Ringwraiths and in the smoke and flames the figures of Smaug, the Balrog, and Sauron. It’s hauntingly beautiful, and viewers won’t be able to tear their eyes away from the screen.

The rest of the references don’t land as gracefully, mainly because they feel less like something that happened in real life and more like screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford saying “Hey this guy wrote Lord of the Rings!” Tolkien grousing to Edith that “it shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a ring” when discussing Wagner is clever. But the soldier who attends to Tolkien in the trenches being named Sam is a stretch too far.

Despite some heavy-handed references to the Middle Earth books, Tolkien is a well-acted and well-directed film that sheds some light on one of the most beloved authors who ever lived.

Tolkien is playing nationwide in select theaters.

  • 8/10
    Rating - 8/10


Despite some heavy-handed references to the Middle Earth books, Tolkien is a well-acted and well-directed film that sheds some light on one of the most beloved authors who ever lived.

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