Tolkien is directed by Dome Karukoski. The film stars Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, and Derek Jacobi.
JRR Tolkien is an author known around the world for the creation of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, seminal fantasy novels which remain popular to these days, due in no small part to the recent film adaptations. The film follows Tolkien through his childhood, being a fish out of water in his new social circles in a boarding school following the deaths of his parents. The young Tolkien eventually befriends follow young artists and forges a relationship with a young woman who doesn’t have the means to express herself otherwise. Young Tolkien eventually finds himself in the trenches during the First World War, later surviving to start a family and launch his own career as an author.
Even if the name JRR Tolkien doesn’t immediately ring a bell, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings surely will. It’s surprising we haven’t gotten a theatrical biopic of the man until now, over 40 years after his death, despite his works remaining among the most famous literary pieces in the world. While some will argue Tolkien (the film) is a bit conventional in terms of its structure, it succeeds as a film with its casting, production values, memorable scenes and images, and look at the early birth of what would become some of the most famous of all fantasy stories. What weighs the film down is a rushed third act and lack of content following Tolkien’s publishing of the work.
As far as casting go, Nicholas Hoult (probably best known to mainstream audiences these days for playing Hank McCoy/Beast in the more recent X-Men films) is superb as the biopic’s titular subject. He brings a vulnerability and innocence to the role, a man who possesses talents everyone but him seems to be able to see. We see him as a young boy (played by a different actor) and his volatile but eventually lasting relationships with his classmates, his romance, and eventual entry into the First World War, where he sees unimaginable horrors. Throughout it all, Hoult keeps the character grounded, preventing the movie from being over-the-top or leaving the man feeling like a caricature. Picking the right leading man makes or breaks a biopic, and Hoult is up for the task here.
The supporting cast also fares well, from Tolkien’s young school friends to Lily Collins as his love interest spanning the years. Fortunately, Hoult and Collins have fantastic chemistry in their scenes together, and the romance feels believable and like something you’ll want to remain a major focal point throughout the movie’s duration.
The production design fares equally well, with beautiful setpieces which take viewers back in time, be it a boarding school, a congested and dirty city, or the trenches of World War I and literal piles of bodies and pools of blood. From the glamorous to the outright horrible, the scenery of Tolkien does its job and then some.
As much as I like the film overall, it does suffer in a few areas. For a movie which spans just under two hours, a few too many characters are introduced, and not everyone gets the screen time or development they deserve; a relationship between Tolkien and a professor of languages has potential but never gets the time on screen it should. Likewise, the third and final act of the film, following the horrors of the war, just feels too rushed and underdeveloped compared to the earlier acts.
The biggest issue I have with the movie is where it stops, just as Tolkien himself begins writing The Hobbit… and then the movie ends, and we get worded epilogues explaining some elements of the rest of his life. That the movie doesn’t cover the actual publication of the stories and how future events, including their publication, impact Tolkien’s life, is a wasted opportunity. Goodbye Christopher Robin, another film dealing with a World War I veteran turned author, handled this aspect far better, and it's disappointing to see Tolkien doesn't even touch on it apart from the epilogues.
Tolkien may not contain a whole lot of surprises which elevate it above a conventional biopic, but it’s a solid enough film thanks to the fantastic performances from Hoult and Collins, production design and everything else it’s got to offer. It’s worth seeing.
Rating: Three stars out of four.
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