Some viewers no doubt believe that only those familiar with The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and their author are qualified to appraise a film like Tolkien (2019). Others, however, will argue that this film, like any other, should be assessed on its own merits rather than on criteria external to the film itself. This review sits firmly in the latter camp.
The film’s narrative arc is simple despite its abrupt and frequent flashbacks. Interweaving several vignettes of early life against the frame of his horrific military experience in WWI, we see the youthful orphan Tolkien (Harry Gilby) placed under the care of a family priest. As the teenager becomes the young adult (Nicholas Hoult), his gift for words and storytelling becomes obvious. He is enrolled at boarding school where he forms a close bond with three other artistically creative boys. He later takes a scholarship to Oxford, where eventually he would become an acclaimed author and Professor of English.
As a bio-pic, this film covers a narrow span of Tolkien’s life. What makes it remarkable cinema, apart from its evocative depiction of the era, is the way it illustrates how his life experience shaped his literary works. Although somewhat cliched, the scenes of young Tolkien at play as a sword-wielding Knight of the Realm depicts an early creative imagination waiting to find shape in words. The concepts of fellowship, heroic quest, and good versus evil are all formed in boyhood.
The film’s most powerful scenes depict the effect of trench warfare on his creative mind. When the fever-affected Lieutenant Tolkien peers over the mud-soaked trenches strewn with corpses, he stares into a 360-degree world of carnage, punctuated by screams, advancing bayonets, whistling rifle-fire, gas grenades and bombs exploding as far as the eye can see. In the midst of this inferno, Tolkien searches for a friend from the fellowship of his youth. Peering from his hole in the ground, the smoke trails take on the deathly shapes of monsters, dragons, Orcs and Wargs that would later roam his invented Middle Earth. The totality of madness depicted in these scenes would later explain Tolkien’s choice of high fantasy, a genre that builds completely self-contained make-believe worlds.
Like all good adventure tales, there is a romance to lighten its dark side. The lovely Lily Collins (who plays Edith) is excellent as his childhood sweetheart and enduring muse, and there are delightful scenes that explore the richness of language which later became the author’s trademark. The acting is first class and Nicholas Hoult is the perfect mix of innocence and romantic. Above all else, this film offers a view of the seamless interconnection between life and art.
Director: Dome Karukoski
Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins