It would only take a cursory examination of this site to let you know that I am a Middle-Earth obsessive, but rather than harp on about that in this preamble, I wanted to talk about something else. The release of this biopic has been unfortunately overshadowed by the all too predictable public dismissal of the project out of hand by the Tolkien Estate. The Estate, through J.R.R’s son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien up till recently, have never had much time for any adaptations of Tolkien’s works, or rather any of them that they did not have a direct hand in making, despite the fact they don’t appear to have actually watched any of them. Such snobbery, seeing as how the Estate is more than content to squeeze every last bit of potential from the remnants of Tolkien’s writings in yet more and more posthumous releases, is regrettable for its sheer lack of necessity, having, in my opinion, coloured the view of Tolkien before it had a fair shake.
This is not to say that Tolkien is or was a surefire hit otherwise. It has the unmistakable whiff of “standing ovation biopic” all over it, and even the most casual of Middle-Earth aficionados could probably guess the story beats that are going to be hit here. But on the other hand it has a hell of a good cast, a well-regarded director and a story that has a great deal of potential, touching on themes of romance, brotherhood, duty, war and sacrifice. Did it all come together to give a figurative two fingers to the Estate? Or is are they right to blindly handwave away this visualisation of the man’s life?
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Harry Gillby, Nicholas Hoult) grows up a poor orphan in Edwardian England, with a love for language and legends, but struggling with his social inferiority. He finds solace with a group of artistically minded school-friends, including would-be poet Geoffrey Smith (Adam Bregman, Anthony Boyle), and more importantly with fellow orphan Edith (Mimi Keene, Lily Collins), with whom he begins a troubled romantic affair. From the halls of Oxford to the trenches of World War One, Tolkien struggles to maintain the bonds of love and friendship, finding inspiration for some of the most famous writings in history along the way.
While it lacks a literal standing ovation, as so many other biopics of the last few years have included, Tolkien is, in the end, disappointingly straightforward and to the letter of what this category of prestige picture has rapidly become. The Theory Of Everything has a lot to answer for really, even if recent efforts like All Is True, Fighting With My Family or At Eternity’s Gate have shown that there is still really top quality stuff to be wrung from the genre. Which is not to say that Tolkien is a basket-case, as I hope to outline, but it is not a work that I feel appropriately captures the magnitude of the great man’s life.
Tolkien frames itself around the titular character’s desperate search for his academic comrade Geoffrey, lost among the human misery of the Somme, with Tolkien accompanied only by his loyal batman, Sam. Those fearing that such a name indicates a lorry-load of references and knowing winks to the audience need not worry too much, thankfully, with the script of David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford showing a bit of restraint on that score: the worst it gets is when one of Tolkien’s classmates, pondering on Wagner, declares it shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a ring (and Tolkien is on record about the influence of his World War One batmen on Sam Gamgee).
It’s a rather tired device as a means of forming a narrative, the constant flashbacks and returns to a dark, grim present. The World War One sections are constructed marvelously of course, every inch the mechanical horror show that they were to a nature-lover like Tolkien, and the film itself might be at its most interesting when a sleep-deprived J.R.R hallucinates familiar figures and things in the murky surrounds of no man’s land: British cavalry becomes Black Riders, flamethrowers become dragons, poison gas becomes dark, menacing figures crowned with fiery red (a Sauron allusion of course, though I rather thought of Morgoth climbing to meet Fingolfin).
The Middle-Earth legendarium was, of course, borne in the middle of the First World War, with Tolkien constructing what we know today as “The Fall Of Gondolin” while recuperating from illness sustained on active duty. The original sketch of that story contained references to enemy tanks. If the filmmakers were, perhaps, a bit braver they could have made the choice to depict only this section of Tolkien’s life, something in the style of much superior At Eternity’s Gate, an examination of how Tolkien, in a moment of supreme physical and mental trial, was able to find succor and stability in a reversion to his love of language and old mythic tales, before crafting his own.
Instead, we get the standard “greatest hits” approach to Tolkien’s life: the death of his parents at a young age; the home where he grew up and met Edith; his public school education and friendships with those who would form the “Tea Club and Barovian Society” or “TCBS” for short; having to choose between Edith and college; going off to war; etc. If you’re doing this kind of biopic on Tolkien you obviously will have to cover this ground, but it is unfortunately rote in feel.
Which is a shame because there is much to recommend about these sequences. Both Gillby and Hoult bring a quiet dignity to Tolkien, a boy and then a man terrified of being alone, chafing under societal pressures and not quite able to get the ideas bursting out of his brain down in the proper form. The TCBS crowd all play off each other wonderfully, with small sub-plots to mark themselves out: Robert Gilson (an excellent Albie Marber, then Patrick Gibson) who rebels against his stern father’s authority by being the joker of the group; Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant, then Tom Glynn-Carney) who may be a rival for Edith’s affections; and most importantly Geoffrey Smith, with Anthony Boyle transitioning from the Potter-verse to Middle-Earth with aplomb, playing an artistically stifled young man whose affection for his peers gets him through things. And maybe his specific affection for Tolkien might, it is subtly implied, have been a little bit more.
Tolkien captures that kind of pre-World War One boyhood feel rather well in the way these four are drawn towards each other, act out in a stifling culture and all but pledge to lay down their lives for each other. That last one is something Tolkien takes to a near literal extreme during World War One, in a search for a missing comrade while he himself deals with fever and fatigue. But the film has done the necessary groundwork in the lead-up to make that believable at any rate.
But the film is going to live and die on the portrayal of Edith Bratt, and there Keene and then Collins do a fairly decent job. The story of her and Tolkien’s romance is portrayed almost dead-on, with a few timeline changes the most notable alterations, and is almost sappy, except that it did pretty much happen as it is portrayed. Hoult’s Tolkien is unsure how to conduct himself towards a woman, Edith’s musical appreciation is a rare escape for her, and both are orphans in a cruel, uncaring world. You do get the feel of the depth of feeling between the two, in scenes where Tolkien tries to sneak her into an opera, or where she admonishes him for shutting down her discussion of musical greats. Hoult and Collins have obvious chemistry, taking what might have been a sappy script otherwise and making it something believable.
The famous – for Tolkien fanatics – recollection of her dancing in a woodland glade, the inspiration for Luthien, is less important than you might think here, but the point is made. We don’t get to go as far as Tolkien’s heartbreaking comments on how bereft he was after her death in the 1970’s – “…the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos” – but the impact of Edith on John Ronald, as seen in Tolkien, is undeniable. The most notable omission is the issue of Edith’s religion – she converted from Protestantism to Catholicism to be with Tolkien, to the disgust of her family – which is only briefly mentioned by Tolkien’s guardian Father Francis Morgan, played by a frequently scene-stealing Colm Meaney.
If Tolkien has that higher point to make it is about the way these relationships – both the masculine camaraderie of the TCBS, the romantic possibilities with Edith, and even the soul-focused advice of Father Francis – shaped Tolkien’s writing and views. In the first instance is where he found a fixation on brotherhood, fellowship and duty. In the second is where he found a recourse to love and a connection between his own life and the lives of the figures in the old tales he found so fascinating, a cipher as it were. And in the third, naturally, was the impact of his Catholic faith, which the film otherwise downplays.
That adoration of language – the sounds of it, the meaning of it, the history of it and, eventually, the creation of it – is a recurring point, in conversations with Edith (influenced by his thoughts on “cellar door“), in discussions with academic influence Prof Joseph Wright (an excellent Derek Jacobi) who offers a genuinely fascinating diatribe on how language evolves through a look at the word “oak”, and in all the times when Tolkien’s own writings and languages are discussed (appropriately given Tolkien’s “stealing” of Finnish, director Dome Karukoski is from Finland). It is an under-noticed thing about Tolkien that much of what drove his writings was not just an attempt to craft a unique mythology, but to wrap stories around the languages he was able to come up with: Tolkien, at the very least, devotes a decent amount of attention on this fact.
Eventually, as it must, World War One comes along to spoil everything, from love to friendship to academic careers. Tolkien’s run-up to the Great War is as affecting as those sequences set during it, as he contemplates both the potential loss of friends and potential sundering from Edith. One sequence, set as the four TCBS men spend one last night together before shipping out, is moving enough for the way the boyish exuberance and literary charm too often gives way to awkward, contemplative mumbling, the four unable, for once, to enunciate the depths of their fears and feelings.
Tolkien, as we know, makes it back; not everyone else does. The lost generation is sacrificed to the mud of France and Flanders, and Tolkien spends its final minutes in an oddly self-reflective way, as the title character struggles to reconcile the life he had with his experiences of war, and how this affects his writings. As he says to a grieving mother, some may have made it out without lasting physical harm “but there are other kinds of scars”. This section could have done with a bit more time – indeed, throughout the film there is a sense that a fair bit has been left on the cutting room floor – but serves as a fitting conclusion if we are to describe the story as a wander through the misfortunes of Tolkien’s first 25 or so years, and how he came out the other side with a mind for laying the foundations of fantasy literature.
We may not end with a standing ovation – the film concludes before Tolkien achieves fame, the final scenes dedicated to an unexpectedly blank sheet of paper and a very famous opening line – but the film is undoubtedly a love letter of sorts. The Tolkien of Tolkien has his flaws – a perceived coldness in conversation at times, a bullheadedness in pursuit (Jacobi’s Wright calls attention to a possible Germanic origin of “Tolkien” – “fool-hardy”) – but is ultimately a charming enough individual with the dreaded flaw of not ever being able to get up on something, whether it is an Oxford scholarship, a relationship he perhaps should not pursue or a missing comrade in the middle of a war.
Karukoski’s production might not have the same vast visual scope as Peter Jackson brought to the authors works, but it still serves well enough. He captures much of the contrasts that affected Tolkien’s writing and remembrances: the idyllic Shire-like woods of his childhood with the smokey grime of turn-of-the-century Birmingham, the stately beauty of Oxford with the visual hell of the trenches. There is undoubtedly a degree of idealisation of England, land of eternal beauty in parts, but this is somewhat fitting given the subject, who turned the countryside of his youth into Middle-Earth’s agrarian utopia.
A word on Thomas Newman’s score is also required. It’s getting rarer and rarer nowadays that I find film scores worth commenting on at all, but Newman’s is, with a penchant for simple piano to imbue scenes with positive emotion. There is also a curious recourse to almost distorted choir and Asian-sounding wind instruments for those scenes that need a touch of the mystical and the otherworldly, creating that sense of ideas of fantastical scope and arrangement being just outside the reach of the characters. It’s a moody set of music in other ways, most notably for the sections dealing with World War One, where rapidly undulating strings, warped signature themes and stuff that sounds vaguely like Howard Shore’s Gollum leitmotifs come into to play, blending together really brilliantly to create this terrible sense of dread and confusion.
Many of the flaws of Tolkien – the mundanity of the framing device, the lack-of-daring in the narrative, the slightly stuttered nature of the editing and pacing – can be forgiven, since the sum of the other parts comes out at a decently high number. The cast is great, the examination of what made Tolkien Tolkien is interesting and other elements of the production, most notably the score, are strong. But I said before that the film fails to capture the magnitude of Tolkien and the things he accomplished, both in his own life and as a writer, and I still think that is a fair assessment. The film would need to be longer, better paced and maybe just a bit more inventive in how it wants to present the story if it really wanted to accomplish that. I still enjoyed Tolkien a lot, but this isn’t fully the biopic that the man deserved. Regardless, it is still worth seeing. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).