Movies · Reviews

‘Tolkien’ Chooses The Easiest Path

Hoult and Collins shine in an otherwise ordinary biopic.
By  · Published on May 11th, 2019

If you like courtly British tea lounges, old strong wooden drawing rooms, leather-bound literature, tweed vests, academic quips, and the warm, stately glow of early 20th century Great Britain, welcome to your Hollywood fantasy: Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien. The film follows J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult), world-renowned author of literary classics The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, or more impressively, grand architect of Arda, the fictional world that harbors the mythology of the more popularly known Middle Earth.

We meet John Ronald Reuel as a boy (Harry Gilby) who’s just lost his father and must reluctantly move with his mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) and brother Hilary (Guillermo Bedward) to Birmingham, England—a muddy, sooty, coal-fired town that Tolkien enjoyed certain aspects of but abhorred the technological modernity of. However, within minutes he walks in on his dead mother, and he and Hilary are orphaned, put up in a boarding home by their friendly legal guardian and Catholic priest, Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney).

Young Tolkien enrolls in King Edwards School where he quickly befriends three fellows like himself who love literature, poetry, language, pranks, booze, a respectfully bold attitude toward authority, and rugby. Together, Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney), Robert Quilter Gilson (Patrick Gibson), Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman), and Tolkien spend their afternoons and evenings in a decadent tea lounge in Barrow’s Stores, jawing loudly about theology, women, music, academics, fantasies, practical jokes, and other such things.

They read their own literature to each other and discuss it critically as a group. They playfully name themselves the Tea Club & Barrovian Society (aka TCBS) and less playfully commit to a deep fellowship that would end up serving as Tolkien’s communal foundation until the disaster of warfare struck.

While in Birmingham, Tolkien meets Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a gifted pianist and fellow orphan in the boarding house. Though their love blossoms while he’s at King Edwards, Father Francis bans Tolkien from seeing her, knowing full well that he won’t get into Oxford without a scholarship and won’t make the grades for a scholarship in the regular company of Edith. Tolkien puts up a fight to no avail, later moves on to Oxford, and pines for her every chance he gets, counting down the seconds to his 21st birthday when he can court Edith again from afar, at least.

We intermittently flash forward to Tolkien’s time in the war, but otherwise spend the rest of the film at Oxford with the boys and their studies. Screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford pen a heavy emphasis on Tolkien’s study of philology and ancient poetry, the bedrock ingredients of Middle Earth’s inception and by far his most beloved subjects. They showcase Tolkien’s talent for creating languages, whether demonstrated in a drunken tirade, a common conversation, or an attempt to rescue his education. They also work in nods to his talents as an illustrator and linguist.

However, they get wrong that he was a roving drunk more than he was a devoted student. Despite the film’s plotline of Tolkien’s near academic leave from Oxford, he only ever buckled to second class honors once (still honors, mind you), before switching into English Literature where he was able to pursue philology and leave his distaste for more modern classic literature behind, which the film acknowledges.

Like many bright-eyed humanities students, I took classes on Tolkien and the Oxford Inklings, so I entered the film with an upturned nose and strict expectations of historical and literary precision. Hollywood isn’t known for its comprehensive standards, but as it turns out, the history of Tolkien is shockingly accurate for a major studio biopic that sells tickets on the pretense of beautiful people doing beautiful things regardless of how true the tale. However, the problem with Tolkien isn’t what it gets wrong, but what it leaves out and overemphasizes. Outside of some minor details and understandable chronological rearrangement, there are significant aspects of Tolkien’s life that, conveyed honestly, would’ve bolstered Karukoski’s film with the complexity it ultimately lacked.

Tolkien shapes the biography of the professor-turned-author into a classic hero’s journey when it wasn’t one. The film flouts his stern clinging to the Catholic faith (a lifelong point of tension between him and Bratt that resulted in him successfully demanding her conversion), his fascination with spirituality/theology, his support of hierarchical class-based social structures, the Oxford Inklings at The Eagle and Child (affectionately known as The Bird and Baby), his reputation as a mediocre teacher and lecturer, his profound but thorny relationship with C.S. Lewis, Bratt’s outward distaste for Oxford and the bourgeoisie culture that she never acclimated to, and the incessant struggles of their marriage, to name a few things.

But this film isn’t about Tolkien the adult, the husband, the professor, the writer, etc. It’s about Tolkien the kid, the romantic, the friend. And it’s sweetly and faithfully told. I recognize that I can’t fault the filmmakers for not meaningfully addressing several of the topics mentioned above based on the story they chose to tell. But by choosing to frame the story in Tolkien’s less documented childhood, the filmmakers allowed themselves to get away with neglecting many of the more complicated and thought-provoking facets of his life. And as far as faith, theology, and spirituality are concerned, I suppose the controversy or frustration Tolkien’s extreme devotion would elicit wasn’t worth the risk on a scale this large. Still, there are better ways to address it than not addressing it at all. Faith was debatably the most significant aspect of Tolkien’s life.

Where the film lacks exploration of those topics, it overexerts itself in merging Tolkien’s biography and literature into one. At one point, each member of the TCBS thrusts their hands in the middle to form a literal fellowship pact that mirrors the inauguration of the Fellowship of the Ring in Rivendell. At another point, one of the boys playfully chides Richard Wagner’s epic “Ring Cycle,” shouting, “It shouldn’t take 6 hours to tell a story about a ring!” And when we flash forward to Tolkien falling ill with trench fever at the Battle of the Somme during World War I, we see a weak and helpless Frodo aided by an ever-eager and adoring Sam. Tolkien is wrapped captive in blankets—sick, pale, helpless, and dying—just like Frodo in Shelob’s spider web straight jacket.

While scholarship is clear about the fact that Tolkien’s war experience at the Battle of the Somme inspired many dooming facets of Middle Earth, perhaps the movie misconstrues that those inspirations were more thematic, spiritual, and abstract in nature. Of course, there are situations like the ones prompted by the film. As the war scenes suggest and Dr. John Garth has evidenced, the Somme battlefield laid waste with corpses became the Passage of the Dead Marshes in Lord of the Rings. The imagery of fire-breathing dragons realized as attacking flamethrowers is wonderfully connected and shot.

Through impressive cinematography and sound design, the film communicates how Tolkien would later use the white-hot metals and fiery red mills of Birmingham’s industrial urbanization as a model for the underground Uruk-hai-breeding hellscapes of Mordor and Isengard. And it rightly proposes that his frustrations with Birmingham make sense when you consider his life up until that point had been lived amongst the rolling green hills and parasol trees of Sarehole Mill in the beautiful English countryside, a direct parallel to The Shire, of course.

Whether all these parallels are overstated will probably depend on each viewer’s knowledge of Tolkien and his cosmology. Perhaps a better version would’ve omitted some of the fluffier Hollywood moments and replaced them with genuine, developed, historical (and still very Hollywood!) moments, like the existence of Gaffer Gamgee—the inspiration for the Gamgee family line—or the language Tolkien and his friends created called Animalic, in which “boy nightingale woodpecker forty” somehow translates to “you are an ass,” as Dr. Ralph Wood points out. Or maybe it would’ve spent more time with the briefly mentioned old English poem “Crist” by Cynewulf, which served as the cornerstone of Tolkien’s inspiration for his entire cosmology—it read: “Hail, Éarendel, brightest of angels above middle earth sent to men.”

This brings us to the silliest mistake of the movie—a creative choice that could have easily been left behind. Whenever one of these parallel moments of inspiration strikes, the camera lingers on Tolkien gazing into the distance, as if he were always having a bright idea about the fictional world he wouldn’t even consider building until decades later—as if he were the omniscient angel Éarendel. In the immediacy after death, we often memorialize the dead in angelic terms, speaking only of pleasant memories and noble traits. But this isn’t a funeral. Nearly a half-century after his passing, that kind of approach is merely sloppy storytelling.

But when Edith dances beneath the sunshine-split autumn trees or between the narrow walls of backstage prop rooms to the sound of symphonies, all concerns evaporate into thin air. Collins is magnetic. She communicates Bratt’s lovelorn nature and suppressed passions through minuscule movements you might miss if you blink. Despite the film’s disinterest in the reality of Bratt and Tolkien’s marriage once he became a professor, Collins suffuses a subtle discontentment in the final moments of the film that will send meticulous viewers out of the theatre wondering how their relationship played out in real life.

Hoult is terrific, as well, with or without Collins on screen, but when they’re together, the film delivers its most electric moments. The energy between the two—whether positive or negative—is palpable from start to finish. Casting director Kate Ringsell deserves an award for the previously unmet pairing of young stars, both of whom pass as 16-year-olds as well as they do an older married couple.

Tolkien is a standard biopic, but Collins and Hoult heave it just a hair above the rest with the sincere display of emotion and sparse reliance on schlocky clichés. For that reason, a lot of people will like Tolkien and feel it did its job in honoring the man, the myths, and the marriage of the two, even if its focus was low-hanging fruit.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.