There are certain names in our culture that when heard or seen reach further than existing as a mere representation of a person or a commodity. Its very sound can embody an emotional attachment beyond the norm. Kodak is one. In entertainment, there’s Walt Disney. And in fantasy literature, there’s Tolkien. The very name, the sound, its look, can’t help but conjure images of elves, mountainous snow-capped landscapes, magic rings, and fiery dragons. It’s unique.
In the new biographical drama Tolkien from Finnish film director Dome Karukoski, the early days of the writer, poet, and academic, born in South Africa, raised in England, is told. Beginning with Tolkien’s time as a second lieutenant commanding enlisted men at the Somme after the largest battle of the First World War on the Western Front, the officer is left dazed and confused having witnessed and survived one of the bloodiest battles in world history. More than a million men were either killed or wounded.
After being helped by one of his men back into the muddy trenches while bombs and gunfire continue to blast all around them, Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) is told, “I don’t think the night will treat us well, sir.” It’s during this time that Tolkien, tired, cold, scared, and with a feverish mind, throughout the night reflects back on the events of his life that lead him to this point.
Tolkien enjoyed a childhood with his mother (Laura Donnelly) and his younger brother living in the pastoral country setting of England’s Sarehole Mill. His father had died in South Africa leaving the family stranded and penniless in another country. Because of this, with the help of Catholic priest and family friend Father Morgan (Colm Meaney), shelter is given, but it would mean having to leave the green mountains of England’s pleasant pastures, as described by poet Robert Blake, and live among the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ of Birmingham’s industrial revolution. The clouds of unhealthy smoke blown into the air in volumes from the imposingly tall brick stacks of the factories, polluting everything and everyone for miles, corresponds with the poisonous yellowy green gas Lt. Tolkien experiences in the trenches.
By covering Tolkien’s early years, the film explores the young man’s time after his mother’s death studying at King Edward’s School. While there, he developed a deep fellowship with three other boys. Together they formed a secret society which they called the TCBS (it stood for Tea Club and Barrovian Society, indicating their love of drinking tea in Barrow’s tea stores by the school).
It was during this time that Tolkien met Edith Bratt (Lilly Collins), a young woman three years his senior who lived in a boarding house in an affluent area of Birmingham. But Father Morgan, Tolkien’s legal guardian, disapproved of the relationship and believed it was the older, protestant woman who was responsible for Tolkien failing his exams. The Catholic priest demanded that Tolkien stopped meeting, talking, or even corresponding with the young woman or Tolkien’s university career would be cut short.
The Tolkien estate in England is said to have disavowed the film. That’s not to say it disapproved. It simply wanted it known it had nothing to do with the production. At the time of releasing that statement, the estate had yet to see Karukoski’s movie. Certainly, there are timeline differences in the big screen telling as opposed to how events unfolded in real life. Tolkien and Edith reunite after a temporary breakup just as the young man is about to leave for war. “Stay alive and come back to me,” she insists. In reality, they were already wed, but there appears little that would negatively impact Tolkien’s character or give false allusions to the man. If anything, the film paints a respectful picture of the writer and tends to leave out some of the warts ‘n all elements.
When war broke out, his relatives are said to be shocked when he did not immediately volunteer for the army. Tolkien, who by his own admission had ‘little physical courage,’ elected to continue his studies rather than put on a uniform. At the time, it was commonly thought that the war would end quickly. It was a year later when he entered the Lancashire Fusiliers after relatives became outspoken regarding their wanting him to fight, and a further eleven months until he was finally sent overseas. The film portrays none of this, indicating only that he was there, at the Somme, doing his part. It also downplays the conflicting role of religion in Tolkien’s life. After the marriage, Edith converted to Catholicism, but the event is not part of this screen retelling. Neither are those famous conversations and shared thoughts with Christian author C.S. Lewis.
What the film does is parade events in its narrative where fans of his writing will recognize references that would go on to inspire events in his work, some more obvious than others. The secret society fellowship of the TCBS is one of them. Plus, when Edith talks of her passion for Wagner’s music, particularly the four-opera cycle, known simply as The Ring, one of Tolkien’s friends chides, “It shouldn’t take six hours to talk about a magic ring.” And it’s during the horrors of suffering in the trenches with the fear of death forever present where for just a moment Tolkien’s feverish mind sees the flame throwers of the Germans as the fiery breath of a CGI dragon. In truth, the sequence is little more than a brief cinematic fantasy invented to satisfy, if only for a moment, those hoping to catch a glimpse of a hobbit or anything else that might relate to the famous Peter Jackson epics.
Lasse Frank Johannessen’s widescreen cinematography is rich in its color and stunning in its well-composed beauty. Plus, the casting throughout is good. With her delicate, attractive features that lend themselves so well to the camera, coupled with her character’s wit, intelligence, and talent, there’s little doubt why Hoult’s Tolkien would be instantly smitten with Collins’ Edith. His lifelong love for her would later become an inspiration for a character found in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, a work published posthumously by Tolkien’s son Christopher in 1977.
When a professor at Oxford (Derek Jacobi) tells Tolkien, “A word without meaning is merely a sound,” he’s referring to the invented language the student has a talent for creating. Tolkien’s name has a literal meaning – ‘daredevil’ or ‘foolhardy.’ But neither words spring to mind when you think of the man. See the word Tolkien and you now associate a whole different set of meanings; a Shire, fantastical kingdoms, fellowships, hobbits, elven princes, dwarf warriors, dragons, and wizards. Tolkien the movie may not recreate any of those characters or settings, but it does illustrate their inspiration. The film is more like a big screen special edition of a Sunday evening Masterpiece Theatre. It’s as tasteful as the poster suggests, and always engaging.
MPAA Rating: PG 13 Length: 111 Minutes