A film review by Craig J. Koban August 24, 2019

TOLKIEN jj
 

2019, PG-13, 112 mins.

 

Nicholas Hoult as J.R.R. Tolkien  /  Lily Collins as Edith Bratt  /  Genevieve O'Reilly as Mrs. Smith  /  Colm Meaney as Father Francis Morgan  /  Tom Glynn-Carney as Christopher Wiseman  /  Craig Roberts as Sam  /  Anthony Boyle as G.B. Smith  /  Patrick Gibson as R.Q. Gilson  /  

Directed by Dome Karukoski  /  Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford

 

 

 

Outside of my basic knowledge that he wrote some of the most cherished and iconic fantasy novels of the 20th Century, I really don't profess to be an expert or scholar on the life and times of James Ronald Reuel Tolkien, known the world over as J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of, yes, THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.  

Often considered the father of modern fantasy literature, there's simply no denying his massive influence and importance for the genre, which also spawned one of the most critically and audience adored film trilogies ever made.  But he was also a poet, philologist, and professor, not to mention a war veteran, and such a richly filled life should make for an compelling docudrama, especially in terms of how his young experiences shaped the man he would become and how he came to pen such revered fantasy literature. 

This, of course, brings me the specifically titled TOLKIEN (pronounced - as referenced multiple times in the film - "toll-keen"), which has the somewhat daunting task of covering multiple time periods of the scholar's life and somehow homogenizing them all together to create a fully realized portrait of his academic and literary genius.  It not only has to show his most humble beginnings as a linguist, but it also has to traverse darker periods of his existence, like being a soldier during the most dreadful times of World War I and then follow that up with an investigation of his influences and inspirations in developing what would become THE HOBBIT and LOTR.  On a positive, TOLKIEN does boast strong period production values and a commendably invested performance by Nicolas Hoult as the titular figure, but the whole enterprise feels oddly rushed and truncated, not to mention that some of the film's creative choices left me feeling cold and displaced.   

 

 

This is all really too bad, because Tolkien, on paper, is an endlessly fascinating chap and clearly one of the most innovative writers of the last hundred years that frankly deserves a more full bodied treatment than he gets here.  TOLKIEN's sometimes frantic and haphazard manner of ricocheting back and forth between the writer's childhood, upbringing and young adulthood and his time during the gruesome experiences during the Battle of Somme in WWI in 1916 is more confusing at times than satisfying.  The early sequences have a dramatic potency, though, as we witness young Tolkien growing up in rural England, only then to be relocated with his brother by his mother to the more heavily industrialized London.  When family tragedy befalls him, Tolkien is placed in the care of Father Francis (Colm Meaney), who in turn places him to live with a wealthy guardian that's also tending after Edith (Lily Collins), who Tolkien falls for instantly.   

We then traverse to adult Tolkien (Hoult) and his college years in Oxford, during which time he forms a very tight group with his classmates in Geoffrey (Anthony Boyle), Christopher (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Robert (Patrick Gibson), all of whom forge a secret society that helps them all, in various ways, make it through their collegiate lives.  And, yes, Tolkien does find himself in mutual love with Edith, but has issues with committing to a long-term relationship with her, especially when he seems more driven by scholastic and creative pursuits.  Then all hell breaks loose with WWI, leaving Tolkien a bruised, battered, and emotionally ravaged soldier that - if this film is to be literally believed - used his intensely nightmarish ordeals on the blood soaked battlefields spearhead his creation of Middle Earth, monsters, wizards, and so forth. 

One of the biggest glaring issues with TOLKIEN is the overall execution by director Dome Karukoski and writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, especially when it comes to the war sequences, which prove to be both viscerally powerful, yet odd when connected relative to the whole of the picture.  There's no doubt that these experiences in the trenches were integral to shaping Tolkien, and any omission would have been considered a gross oversight, but using them as a constant framing device creates this weird disconnect with the forward momentum of the film.  Tolkien would eventually develop trench fever thanks to an outbreak of lice, and the disease had its toll on the young man.  Still, TOLKIEN seems determined to use these war scenes to portray the future author having hallucinations that he was seeing mythical creatures on the warfront, not to mention other visions that look conveniently like, in one instance, the Eye of Sauron.  I'm not entirely sure if the horrors of surviving the apocalyptic No Man's Land in the war to end all wars influenced Tolkien's Middle Earth creations as much as this film leads one to believe.  That, and it all comes off as forced and a little bit confusing; unsuspecting viewers might even infer that Tolkien was schizophrenic during the war, especially in the overt ways this film presents it. 

Another annoyingly distracting quality of TOLKIEN is that it really never delves into specifics of his creation of the LOTR, with only THE HOBBIT getting barely name dropped in the closing sections of the film.  It's true that honing in on the man's life outside of fantasy literature is important, to be sure, but LOTR fans may be disappointed by how little TOLKIEN focuses on...well...Tolkien writing his most famous works, leaving the biopic feeling mostly uninspired and lacking in conceptual imagination.  And, wow, does this film ever hammer home its connections, like, for example, Tolkien referring to his college societal friendships as a "fellowship" (ouch) or showing the traumatized Tolkien envisioning the fire breathing Smaug rising into the air as he struggles to stay alive at the worst part of the Battle of Somme (double ouch).  It's a little all too much, really, and feels like a cheap and pedestrian way to dive into the psychological headspace of this man and how his innovative though processes work.  I guess simply showing him at an office desk for hours simply writing LOTR isn't as cinematic. 

Still, TOLKIEN is as handsome of a period film in terms of production values and art direction as one would find this year, and Hoult does a uniformly stellar job of thoroughly investing himself in this tricky role, making Tolkien feel more nuanced and developed than the screenplay really provides.  And he has a natural and easygoing chemistry with Collins, and their love story doesn't always follow the standard, preordained follow-through that most biopics offer up.  Some of the more quietly compelling and tender moments of their courtship involves them just simply sharing in each other's company and having long and spirited conversations about language and the meaning of words (there's another memorable moment later on when Tolkien is given an introduction to the pleasures of Wagner).  These smaller character building scenes are frustratingly too few and far between, but they help to dramatically ground the film as well as refreshingly showing two people that are attracted to one another via intellectual pursuits, which isn't shown in too many films. 

But, alas, I struggled overall with this film's undisciplined blandness of approach.  We get tantalizing tidbits here and there about this mythmaker in the making as well as a somewhat intriguing dissection of his artistic motivations (some credibly handled, some laughably lacking in subtlety).  Maybe a thorough expose on Tolkien's life is kind of impossible in a film under two hours, leaving much of it feeling half baked and lacking in noteworthy details (the author's devout Catholicism is virtually never even hinted at in any tangible way).  I've read that the Tolkien estate has opted to distance themselves from this production, but I don't think because the film is bad and/or a character assassination piece in any way.  TOLKIEN shows great unbridled admiration for the man, but I left my screening of it feeling very little admiration for it as an educational and absorbing biopic.  Overall, there's simply not much here that any viewer couldn't already learn from a basic Google search.  There's a very worthy and good biopic buried deep witching this film's problematic facade.

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