Updated: Feb 8, 2020
Tolkien has a story which is only interesting because of what its subject went on to do. It is a biopic about Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien covering his teenage years, with a focus on his bond with three other boys and how his experiences helped inspire his future writing. It is not until the closing moments that we finally see him write the famous words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” It follows his life before then in a methodically-paced production that just does not have much noteworthy to say about him. There is a lot of talk of the magic of language, yet little of that is apparent in the movie itself. The cast is solid and there are some intriguing conversations where he explores his fascination with language and myths, but there is not enough here to explain how his work has captured the imaginations of so many people for so long.
According to this movie, Tolkien’s friendship with Geoffrey, Robert and Christopher, his attraction to Edith and the horrors he witnessed as a soldier in World War I, combined with his love of language, were the biggest influences on his beloved stories. There are allusions to the one ring, the fellowship, the Ents, Sauron and epic quests, though they mainly play as fan service. Those casual references strewn throughout Tolkien have basically nothing to do with the mainline of the narrative. It did not actually need them to convey the story it wants to tell.
It is about a man who overcame the death of his mother and the brutality of war, using love, loyalty and his own intelligence to do something great. While friendship, romance, religion, grief, guilt and education are all touched on, the movie never fully examines what those things meant to J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a “that man grew up to be” story, told competently, if passionlessly. Its subject is a good man, honest and true. Tolkien is well-intended and pleasant, even if it does drag a bit too much.
Nicholas Hoult plays the adult Tolkien. He does an effective job suggesting what is going on inside him, despite not always being given the chance to articulate it. Lily Collins is Edith, the young woman he falls hard for. They have a couple of charming scenes together where she encourages his creativity. Their relationship is what gives the movie its heart. His close companions he considers to be his brothers, each as artistically minded as him, do not have the depth to really come off as individuals. There are a lot of scenes showing the four discussing various topics, though that banter mostly exists to move things along, giving our hero new ideas to ponder.
Tolkien (106 minutes without the end credits) is a decently-made, well-acted, good looking, inoffensive biopic, lacking the wonder and inventiveness that infuses its subject’s oeuvre. It hints at those things in him, but is generally a dry account of his younger years. If you came into it with no concept of who he was or what he went on to do, I am not sure you would get an accurate sense of it from this production. What is here is fine; however, as I was watching it, I could not keep my mind from wandering to what was missing.
2¾ out of 5
Nicholas Hoult as J.R.R. Tolkien
Lily Collins as Edith Bratt
Anthony Boyle as Geoffrey Smith
Patrick Gibson as Robert Gilson
Tom Glynn-Carney as Christopher Wiseman
Colm Meaney as Father Francis
Derek Jacobi as Professor Wright
Harry Gilby as Young J.R.R. Tolkien
Adam Bregman as Young Geoffrey Smith
Albie Marber as Young Robert Gilson
Ty Tennant as Young Christopher Wiseman
Directed by Dome Karukoski
Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford