Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Dome Karukoski

Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, Tom Glynn-Carney, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Harry Gilby, Craig Roberts, Laura Donnelly, Pam Ferris.

One biopic to rule them all?

Nicholas Hoult in Tolkien (2019)

This earnest biopic about John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and the sprawling epic and influential fantasy The Lord Of The Rings, gives some insights into the creative process but is also something of a pedestrian affair. Given the celebrated nature of his novels it is a little surprising to learn that this is the first biopic about the author and his life.  

Written by David Gleeson (Cowboys & Angels, etc) and Stephen Beresford (Pride, etc) the film focuses on the author’s formative years and the experiences that shaped his writing but it covers much of the detail in broad brush strokes and is tonally uneven and seems disjointed. Gleeson and Beresford take a few liberties with Tolkien’s life, which has led to the family estate distancing themselves the film without having seen it.

Orphaned at a young age he had a hard life and endured a number of personal hardships and setbacks in his early years. He studied at an elite boarding school at King Edward School and later at Oxford where he formed a strong bond of friendship with a small coterie of fellow students, including  Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), with whom he formed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. The film also explores his romance with gifted pianist and fellow student Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) who eventually became his wife. Tolkien was also left traumatised by his experiences of fighting in the muddy trenches of France during WWI, another experience that shaped some of his fantasies. While ill in the trenches, Tolkien suffers hallucinations, and these helped shape the mythical beasts he eventually created for his fiction.

Tolkien has been directed by award winning Finnish filmmaker Dome Karukoski, who seems drawn towards films about creative types and the creative process. He previously gave us 2017’s Tom Of Finland, the striking and insightful biopic of artist Touko Valio Laaksonen, a celebrated figure in the gay subculture. This is his first English language film and follows the usual tropes of the traditional biopic. Tolkien deals with themes of friendship, love, death, challenges, but the references and parallels to his famous works become a bit laboured and clunky.

This is a handsomely mounted production with some authentic period production design from and great costumes from Colleen Kellsall. The film has been strikingly shot by Karukoski’s’ regular cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannessen, who captures some lyrical images and bathes the nightmarish WWI scenes in a suitably dark and grim colour palette. Karukoski and Johannessen give the film a specific visual aesthetic that seems heavily influenced by the iconic imagery of Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s epic film adaptations.

Nicholas Hoult (About A Boy, the recent The Favourite, etc) plays Tolkien and he delivers an intelligent, assured and thoughtful performance as the troubled artist. The very busy Collins is also good as Edith, and she gives some depth and nuance to the underwritten character. Colm Meaney plays stern Catholic priest Father Francis Morgan while veteran Derek Jacobi plays eccentric Oxford linguistics professor Joseph Wright, both of whom also had a huge influence on Tolkien.

Tolkien is well acted and visually quite striking but is ultimately a pretty bland and forgettable paint by numbers biopic that doesn’t really uncover much about the man behind the myth.


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