Aida Vucic | 09/06/2019
A relatively conventional biopic peppered with sporadic glimpses of Tolkien’s fantasy world.
After having lost their mother, Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) and his brother are brought to Birmingham, where they attend the illustrious King Edward’s School. It’s here that our protagonist meets his three comrades, affectionately known as the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS). The TCBS (Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney), Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle), and R.Q. Gilson (Patrick Gibson) form a close relationship based on their interest in literacy and art and proclivity for mischief. The film also follows Tolkien’s relationship with fellow orphan Edith (Lily Collins) as the pair quickly become infatuated with one another, sharing intimate moments from exchanges across the table to caressing of fingers. The two are forced apart by Tolkien’s Catholic guardian who rejects Tolkien’s emotions and steers him towards a life at Oxford. Interjected within these stories are glimpses of Tolkien’s experience during the war, as he relentlessly searches for his friends before returning home and becoming the writer we’re so familiar with.
It’s during the battle scenes where Director Dome Karukoski veers from the typical biopic, with the landscape quickly morphing into scenes with dragons and monsters, mirroring that of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. In these moments we are gifted an ethereal connection between Tolkien’s breadth of work and his life and influences, but outside of this (aside from the ending) we really don’t touch too much on his most famous works. Sure, there are little bits here and there that the conscientious viewer will pick out as flashes of inspiration for Tolkien; novels on legends and opera performances glimpsed from a back hall. Karukoski, however, seems much more interested in tackling Tolkien’s command of language however, and we are treated to a series of scenes where Tolkien is either crafting new languages, or engaging with existing ones.
The cast are youthful and vibrant, the chemistry between the TBCS suggests a genuine camaraderie between them. Similarly, the chemistry between Hoult and Collins is undeniable, and the most genuine moments seem to be between them, or between the boys of the TBCS.
The issues present themselves when we look at the structure. For a biopic on such an imaginative writer, there’s an expectation that his tale would defy the usual structure of biopics that we’re so accustomed to. Disappointingly, however, there’s little imaginative flair in this piece, replaced by a never-ending stream of ponderous gazes framed in a rose-tinted lens. It’s a shame, because when Karukoski creates hazy dragons and warriors in the smokescreen of WWII, he shows us what could have been; a more fantastical blend for this historical piece befitting the master of fantasy.
Engaging enough, but for a man renowned for his command of fantasy, this biopic feels somewhat generic.