‘Tolkien’ Review: Biopic Clichés Are a Hard Hobbit to Break
Two words kept banging around in my head throughout Tolkien: “So what?” This new biopic about the life of the man who created the most popular fantasy novels of the last century is stocked with talented actors and painstankingly appointed with detailed period sets and warm cinematography that evokes feelings of nostalgia for days gone by. So what? None of the life we see J.R.R. Tolkien live in the film illuminates his great works of art — or even makes for a particularly compelling tale.
Although no one says “You're gonna have to give him a moment, son. J.R.R. Tolkien has to think about his entire life before he writes The Lord of the Rings,” they might as well; Tolkien has the same clichéd structure Walk Hard made fun of more than a decade ago. It opens with a war-hardened John Ronald Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) as he wanders the trenches of World War I searching for an old friend. Pausing for breaks to rest or take cover from gas attacks, he remembers his childhood and formative years in England, which shaped him into the guy who would eventually write The Hobbit and its epic sequel.
His early imagination was shaped by his mother, who told him stories of brave knights and fearsome dragons while they lived in an English countryside that looks a lot like Bilbo Baggins’ Shire. After his mother’s death, he was put in the care of the church, and then placed in a boardinghouse where he fell in love with another orphan named Edith (Lily Collins). Her elfish features apparently inspired more of the characters in his books. At school, Tolkien strikes up a friendship with a group of boys who love to sit around drinking tea and dreaming of the future. They declare themselves a secret society and vow to support one another for the rest of their lives. Their ... what’s the word? Fellowship? Anyway, it makes a major impression on young Tolkien.
You get the idea. Audiences are expected to ooh and ahh over every homage to Tolkien’s Middle-earth books, and to chuckle knowingly at the jokes that predict the future, as when someone snidely remarks that six hours is way too long for a story about a ring on the way into a Wagner opera. There are even a few fantasy sequences, mostly when Tolkien loses his way in the trenches, that transform the brutal battlefields of Europe into the darkest depths of Mordor. The imagery, by cinematographer Lasse Frank, is appropriately nightmarish, and Tolkien as a whole is a handsome film with rich colors and detailed textures. At times, the camera pushes in so close to Tolkien as he writes that you can see the grain of the paper and the globs of ink of his pen.
But it’s still barely a story. The framing scenes are largely superfluous. Although they do provide an important detail for Tolkien’s third act, they’re otherwise just an excuse to add a small amount of tension to a film about a bunch of kids sitting around drinking tea. Extremely devoted Tolkienites might enjoy seeing the author come of age — if they don’t already know Tolkien’s largely superficial insights into his character. (The Tolkien estate already dismissed the film, saying they “do not endorse it or its content in any way.”)
Hoult brings every ounce of dreamy intensity he can to Tolkien, but at 29 he might be a bit too old for a part that predominantly demands he play a high-school age kid. There’s something particularly jarring about this broad-shouldered adult man getting scolded by his guardian (Star Trek’s Colm Meaney) because he spent time with Edith, and warned him not to see her again until he’s 21 — which, from the look of Hoult, happened about a decade ago. (Until that scene, I assumed Tolkien was at least in his middle 20s during these events.)
Tolkien argues its title character was a perennial outsider, forever searching for his place in the world. He only truly finds himself at Oxford, where he’s taken under the wing of brilliant linguistics professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi), and Tolkien only really finds itself when Jacobi confidently strides into the film and begins monologuing about the power of language to illuminate our lives and the world around us. There’s not much tension in Tolkien’s relationship with Wright, but at least there’s passion. Then, after a few brief scenes, World War I breaks out, and the movie returns to its rote recounting of Tolkien’s biography.
When people getting hot for ancient languages is the exciting part of your movie, you’ve got a problem. Director Dome Karukoski has assembled a fine cast, placed them in a very carefully designed world, and crafted a cinematic exaltation to a great writer. But, again, so what? Karukoski has no answer. There is a reason why J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and not The J.R.R. Tolkien Story.
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