World War I was known at the time as the war to end all wars—and looking at Europe’s casualty rate, it’s hard to argue. For John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the war added yet another chapter to his already tumultuous life. Already orphaned, Tolkien was told by a Catholic ward he couldn’t wed his great love, a Protestant, and the list goes on. Such obstacles are at the forefront of the new biopic, Tolkien, and serve as the driving force for the Lord of the Rings author’s genius.
Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road) leads as Professor Tolkien or, as he was more affectionately known, John Ronald. Hoult does brighten up in parts, though most of his performance feels wooden and vacant. Lily Collins (Okja) as Tolkien’s love Edith, however, is the complete opposite, and the film’s greatest sin is leaving her character with little to do. Elsewhere, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or TCBS, John Ronald’s quartet of boyhood scholars, gleefully contribute to some of the best scenes of the film with a Stand By Me vibe, while
I, Claudius alum Derek Jacobi is is quite welcome as Tolkien’s mentor, Professor Joseph Wright.
Although the historicity of the material is top-notch, emotional connection winds up sacrificed at the feet of accuracy. It’s almost as if writers Derek Gleeson and Stephen Beresford had composed a checklist with snippets of dialogue locked in for the script with no intent to budge. Director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) knows how to visually harness the beauty in the mundane, but ultimately leaves the viewer desiring more
intimacy between characters.
The achievement of Tolkien is, without a doubt, its good looks. Every sequence is photographed with brilliance; bright light accompanies Edith at a piano or dancing and blue-gray hues saturate soldiers, oranges and yellows assault on the horizon in battle. These palettes are inserted alongside hallucinatory effects such as fire-breathing dragons and black knights materializing during the Battle of the Somme. Unfortunately, these are the only visual examples of Tolkien creating, and we all would have benefitted from deeper or better examples of his imagination at work.
Any fan of Tolkien’s life and works will surely be entertained, but it’s hard to say if the average movie-goer would be equally charmed. As the
father of modern fantasy literature and its wildly popular branching paths, the celebrated author, linguist and intellectual deserves more than a
single film to discuss the complexities of his work. In the meantime, we have one more average
biopic to add to the ever-growing subgenre.
+TCBS, what a great group; lush color palette
-Fails to be compelling; lack of intimacy where it counts.
Directed by Karukoski
With Hoult, Collins and Jacobi
Jean Cocteau Cinema, PG-13, 112 min.