Tolkien Review: Not as legendary as its titular figure, but has enough not to disappoint
Delving into the life of legendary author J.R.R. Tolkien and the inspirations that led him to write The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Tolkien boasts a great performance from Nicholas Hoult as the titular writer, but can fall flat from the amount of “movie magic” that flows throughout the film.
The film follows the life of J.R.R. Tolkien from his young days after his mother passes to his days at Oxford University to the struggles he faced in WWI. Though he does not come from a wealthy family, Tolkien has an immense passion for language and a bright sense of imagination. He eventually develops a childhood bond with other fellow outcasts as well as a loving relationship with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a young pianist, that continues into his adulthood. As Tolkien grows further into adulthood and war begins to loom over England, he begins to realize how important the relationships he’s built throughout his life are and how they have inspired him to craft a new kind of journey.
While the film pretty much ignores Tolkien’s strong Christian background and his relationship with fellow acclaimed author C.S. Lewis, the film does still present Tolkien’s inspirations from his childhood friendships. Surely these omissions and moments of “movie magic” will be a little upsetting to fans of Tolkien, but there’s enough magic between Tolkien and his friends that it’s hard not to become a little engrossed in it. Their sense of taking on new challenges and getting new experiences in life feels straight out of Dead Poets Society and I’d be lying if wasn’t a sucker for the Tea Club and Borrovian Society’s desire for life.
There’re definitely some moments where their growth and tackling of challenges comes off as more of a movie moment rather than a genuine change of heart and mind. For instance, scenes like Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson) mustering up the courage to stand up to his father and Tolkien not backing down on going back to school for language can come off as a little fabricated for film entertainment than genuine storytelling. However, I will say that these moments still have their impact and breathe the same inspiration I’m sure Tolkien felt. Not to mention, the performances are still great, from both the young and old versions, that are hard not to enjoy, especially from Hoult and Collins.
Hoult greatly captures the intellect, passion, and kindred spirit that many would associate with iconic author and does an excellent job making Tolkien’s incredible knowledge of language come off as believable in the film. The film definitely paints Tolkien, and really everyone else in the film, as well-educated in language and, while it can leave some viewers a little lost in what their saying, it makes the film feel genuine and its depiction of Tolkien a little more believable. There’s also some nice chemistry between Hoult and Collins that reflects the relationship between Tolkien and Edith well. It’s built from their childhood friendship and, while I could’ve used more of Edith to understand her a little better, there’s a strong focus on having her not be there to show how it affects Tolkien and how much she means to him.
The film also offers some fun callbacks to the works of Tolkien with some solid CGI creatures and some noticeable nods. Shown mostly when we see Tolkien surviving through WWI, the film throws in Tolkien seeing dragons, ashy creatures, and fiery spirits into these sections as an attempt to connect his war experience to his literary works. Again, while its cited that he did use his, as well as his son’s, war experience when creating his adventures in Middle-Earth, these moments were a little much and sort of take away from what’s happening. There’re also some moments that clearly showcase some of Tolkien’s inspirations for Frodo and his fellowship coming from the TCBS and even possibly the idea of the “One Ring” coming from a play that him and Edith went to. Even some of the dialogue can have little nods to Tolkien’s work and I couldn’t help but chuckle when a joke was made along the lines of: “Who wants to sit for six hours to watch a play about a ring.”
It’s also worth mentioning that I wasn’t a huge fan of the back and forth of past and present storytelling as well as the film’s lack of payoff. The story shifts back and forth between Tolkien’s chronological life and his tough days in WWI as a representation of him remembering his life up until this point. Personally, I didn’t care for this kind of storytelling because it made past scenes not as impactful because we know where he will necessarily end up and broke up the flow of the story too much. I also craved to see more of Tolkien’s relationship with Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney) after the war as, while I know there wasn’t much there, it felt as if there was something missing. Honestly, I would’ve just liked to see more of Tolkien after the war in general because once he returns home it feels like the film rushes to an ending and doesn’t necessarily feel complete.
So, while Tolkien is represented well by Hoult’s performance, it’s tough to feel like Tolkien is as authentic because of the moments of “movie magic” that are sprinkled all throughout the film and a lack of strong storytelling. None of this necessarily says that Tolkien isn’t an enjoyable biopic about one of the greatest authors of all-time, but it’s hard to shake how the film struggles to live up to its legendary name.