Tolkien (United States, 2019)May 11, 2019
Tolkien represents a classic standard-order biopic – a high-level profile of someone with minimal flesh on the bones. More like the dramatization of an Encyclopedia Britannica entry than a fully rendered movie, Tolkien provides details about the fantasy author’s life and tries to explore his motivations and influences but loses sight of the character in the process. The Tolkien estate has distanced itself from the production but the move seems largely unnecessary since Dome Karukoski’s uneven film isn’t likely to leave a lasting impression.
One of the main problems is immediately evident: the tortured chronology. The “present” time frame is the Battle of the Somme in 1916, where the adult John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult), ill with trench sickness, is searching for a lost friend. As he stumbles through the hellish landscape that the film hints would inspire Mordor, he hallucinates Smaug and Sauron while remembering select moments from his life. It’s a lazy, uninspired way to tell as story and, although too straightforward to be confusing (even with the occasional nested flashback), it distances us from the character. We know he’s going to survive World War I, write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and live to a reasonably ripe old age. What else matters? Strong biographical films get us to care; this one doesn’t.
Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh. The film is no better or worse than dozens of movies with similar goals. It’s a pea in the pod with Simon Curtis’ 2017 drama, Goodbye Christopher Robin. Although Tolkien as a whole fails to engage, there are a few standout scenes that work in large part because of good acting and better chemistry. The first is a lengthy tête-a-tête between Tolkien and his best friend/would-be lover, Edith (Lily Collins), in which they discuss language and the musicality of words (“cellar door” in particular). Later, Tolkien takes a walk in the woods with his linguistics teacher/mentor, Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi), and learns about the importance of the word “oak.” Those scenes, although factually dubious, anchor believable relationships. The movie comes alive when Tolkien is interacting with Edith or Wright. Sadly, that alchemy doesn’t carry over to the rest of the film. The “fellowship” of the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club Barrovian Society) carries with it an air of artificiality, especially when it occupies an oddly important place near the end of the film. History tells us that Tolkien hung out with three other students – Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle), Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson) – but their interactions were certainly less obviously scripted than they are in Tolkien.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to address the author’s life without some sort of representation of the four books that formed the cornerstones of his fame: The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. The film’s timeframe allows only the briefest direct mention of the first volume; Tolkien ends with the title character penning the famous first line of The Hobbit: “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” In order to insert some LOTR imagery, Karukoski transforms the Battle of the Somme into a playground for dark imaginings and hallucinations. His interpretation of Sauron looks more like Galactus than the menacing figure brought to the screen by Peter Jackson. From a purely visual standpoint, his Smaug compares favorably, but both “cameos” stick out like sore thumbs. Perhaps the filmmakers should have watched the 1997 Robert E. Howard biopic, The Whole Wide World, to understand how to provide a window into an author’s fantasy imagination without resorting to awkward CGI.
The foundational problem with Tolkien isn’t that it’s a bad movie but that the subject matter deserves something better than “ordinary” and “pedestrian.” Strong performances and solid period details can’t compensate for screenwriting deficiencies. Tolkien may have been the most important modern fantasy author but the movie bearing his name won’t stand the test of time.
Tolkien (United States, 2019)
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Derek Jacobi, Colm Meaney, Harry Gilby, Patrick Gibson, Anthony Boyle, Tom Glynn-Carney
Screenplay: David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford
Cinematography: Lasse Frank Johannessen
Music: Thomas Newman
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight