Directed by: Dome Karukoski | 112 minutes | biography, drama | Actors: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynn-Carney, Harry Gilby, Nia Gwynne, Pam Ferris, Laura Donnelly, Craig Roberts, Adam Bregman, Tony Nash, Michael Bryceson, Ty Tennant, Mimi Keene, Sian Crisp, James MacCallum, David Bromley, Lara Maguire, Holly Dempster, Jane Dixon-Rowland
The works of Tolkien – John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in full – have naturally attracted a great deal of interest for decades. ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ have long been worldwide bestsellers. But the timing of this biopic about the famous fantasy author is no coincidence. After the overwhelming success of Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy at the turn of the millennium, the not exactly unnoticed ‘Hobbit’ films ten years later, and the heralded ‘Lord of the Rings’ series from Amazon, the time has come for a film about the life of the creator of all these interesting worlds, characters and events. Who was this man and what circumstances and qualities led to all those beautiful works? These are questions that have led to a solid, at times emotional biopic about one of history’s greatest fantasy authors. However, a film that also takes the necessary shortcuts and makes connections that are too easy.
It is usually quite a challenge to portray an author’s life in a sexy or compelling way. When it comes to a musician or filmmaker, the resulting film is almost by definition more dynamic. Because how can you penetrate the brain of a writer and bring his passion for words and language into the limelight, without portraying too many people talking or making excessive use of a voice over? But also: in what way can you connect the writer’s life a little elegantly with the works he has produced? And don’t the things you leave out do not do enough justice to the three-dimensionality of the real person?
They are problems – or challenges – that also play tricks on ‘Tolkien’. Catholic upbringing, for example, has played an important role in Tolkien’s works, but hardly anything is reflected in the film. According to Dome Karukoski’s film, the love for making up stories and the imaginative themes associated with it seem to be mainly the result of the death of John Ronald’s father and the Germanic fantasy stories – about knights and dragons – that his mother used to tell, with using the ‘projected’ images of a magic lantern on the walls. And yes, these elements also played a role, of course, but by ignoring the religious aspect of the stories and the personality of John Ronald, the film misses a pretty essential element of the author’s mindset. The creation story he devised, the themes of good and evil, fate, redemption, forgiveness… it may not all be completely unambiguous, but the religious foundation is undeniable.
Also regrettable are the oversimplified connections the film perceives between moments in John’s life and iconic elements and events in Tolkien’s stories. Tolkien watching the fire of dragon Smaug as a WWI soldier in the trenches in a flamethrower? The enemy who appears on the misty battlefield as supreme villain Sauron and some undefined horsemen fighting in slow motion? It’s as if Tolkien was tripping all the time, couldn’t deal with reality, and/or was a lousy soldier. A bit exaggerated perhaps, but these easy connections detract from both reality and the timeless fiction he would later write.
The way in which the unforgettable opening line of ‘The Hobbit’ and the rest of the story has come about is also somewhat stripped of the romanticism of Tolkien’s imagination and his way of creating. ‘A Hobbit lived in a hole in the ground’ is the first sentence he spontaneously came up with when he wanted to tell his children a bedtime story. Then he had to figure out what a hobbit actually was. And so the story got bigger and bigger, as it was told. The film makes it seem as if it was a group process, and at that moment he and his children were already setting up the basic elements for ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Nicely conceived and it perhaps fits better with the perception of the average viewer – and the penchant for ‘fellowship’ with which the film would like to end – but it is not quite right.
Fortunately, ‘Tolkien’ also strikes a lot of good chords and the excellent actors manage to hide a lot of weaknesses in the screenplay. Nicholas Hoult is convincing as the young Tolkien: a passionate, language-obsessed man and a hopeless romantic (if the film is to be believed). His love – first secret and later forbidden – for Edith (Lilly Collins) is at the heart of the film; a story element that the viewer can identify with and swoon over. His deep-rooted love for language also comes through nicely through his relationship with Edith. She is one of the few – if not the only one – who really understands him. The scene in which they discuss the beauty of the word ‘cellar door’ in an expensive restaurant and create a story, history and culture around this word is magical. And very efficient. It serves two purposes. Not only is the romantic relationship between this pair deepened, we also better understand how Tolkien’s artistic brain works.
A second romantic key moment is not bad, but maybe a little too neat in finishing the checklist. When John Ronald wants to visit Edith Wagner’s opera ‘Der Ring Des Nibelungen’ but is not allowed in because he does not belong to the right class, he sneaks in through the artist entrance. Unfortunately, he does not end up in the hall but in the wings, where fortunately all kinds of costumes and masks can also be found and Tolkien and Edith can recreate the opera with the sounds of the live performance in the background. Here too – in addition to the obvious reference to Wagner’s ring opera as a source of inspiration for Tolkien’s own ring story – Tolkien’s imagination and love for the fantasy genre are shown on the one hand, and his romantic connection with Edith on the other. But it all feels a little too perfect and polished.
Yet it is precisely this central relationship that keeps the film above water. A tragic love story (or not?), that always works well in art. But this obviously wouldn’t be enough for a film about the language-obsessed Tolkien. His love for languages and especially creating them is an important part of his personality and fortunately quite a bit of attention is paid to this. The film barely manages to really penetrate this love, but there are a few scenes that strike the right chord and effectively take the viewer into the mindset of these types of personalities. One is a discussion between Tolkien and an ancient language professor (Derek Jacobi) about the beauty and origin of seemingly simple words, as they walk through an orchard. For a moment the viewer is lifted and taken into the brain of a writer.
The artistic club that Tolkien founded with a few (intellectual) rebellious classmates is nice to be a part of, but it doesn’t get very interesting or profound. Or at least, not until Edith is introduced to the group of friends, sharpening various relationships and revealing their true natures. It is true that friendships have been very important to Tolkien and the theme – about brotherhood (or ‘fellowship’) – in his stories. And while the scenes are not all equally successful, it does make for a powerful, emotional scene in which Tolkien talks to the mother of a fallen friend, and tells her about his artistic qualities.
All in all, ‘Tolkien’ is a creditable film about the famous fantasy writer, who can boast of excellent acting and is based on an interesting love story. Besides of course the passion for creating languages and stories. Although the film leaves too many holes as a biography and draws connections too easily, for the layman it is an entertaining and at times compelling experience.