Tolkien opens with a tug of war of different elements. Within the first ten minutes, the film cuts between fantastical images from Tolkien’s imagination, Tolkien in the trenches, and Tolkien’s childhood. Though its intent is to create a composite portrait of the man, as the film goes on, they end up feeling like a disparate series of elements that don’t quite coalesce. There are moments and ideas that are of great interest, but it feels like the film, in a scramble to cover the whole man’s life, has moved on to the next character beat, rather than spending time with the one at hand. We see Tolkien through from childhood to assembling Middle Earth, but it feels more like a rush of moments than a story.
Nicholas Hoult’s portrayal of Tolkien is charmingly understated, and conveys brilliance that doesn’t invoke grandeur. It’s the light in his eyes when he talks about language and magic that makes us believe his talents, rather than any bombastic display of linguistic mastery. The rest of the supporting cast all give solid performances, but there isn’t anything particularly memorable to work with here. Indeed, Tolkien’s friends are painted in broad strokes as romantic poets and artists, with Robert Q. Gilson (Patrick Gibson) being the only one who seems distinct enough to stand out. Lily Collins in particular is poorly served as Tolkien’s lover, Edith Bratt, who functions more as a typical biopic love pursuit, than someone the film is interested in characterising in her own right. It’s a significant problem in a film predominantly made up of men, and both Collins and Bratt deserve better than that. The overall impression it gives is that these characters are devices to move Tolkien’s story along, rather than people we can get to know.
‘It left me wondering if a more unconventional biopic, focusing on this side of things in a more impressionistic way, would make us feel closer to the spirit of the author’
The moments where we really understand Tolkien’s passion for language are where the film really comes alive. Simple dialogue exchanges about the wonder of words and how they work are the moments where I felt most connected with Tolkien’s character and world. There is a moment in a restaurant between John and Edith where he describes the beauty of the world ‘cellar door’, and composes a whole world around it. Though on the one hand, it’s used as a slightly saccharine love scene, it also invokes a sense of wonder that makes us understand what drives Tolkien. It left me wondering if a more unconventional biopic, focusing on this side of things in a more impressionistic way, would make us feel closer to the spirit of the author.
This isn’t to say there aren’t small parts that do try and connect with Tolkien’s world in this more abstract manner. Admittedly, I was slightly cynical when I saw re-enactments from Lord of the Rings in the trailers, believing them to be made solely for the purpose of marketing the film to fantasy fans. But in fact, they are fairly sparse, and used effectively when they do appear. The onslaught of flames at No Man’s Land blended with the vision of a dragon breathing fire down upon the soldiers is a powerful contrast. We understand how Tolkien translated his terrible experiences into his magical landscape in a way that doesn’t feel gratuitous.
Tolkien does its job telling the story of the life of its author competently. But for a man known for bringing such beauty and majesty into people’s lives, that’s not quite enough. It’s like we’re seeing someone’s life, but not quite feeling it. There are moments when you get a glimmer of the magic underneath, but they’re drowned out by the usual pretty, but standard, period trappings that the film seems more focused on establishing. If you want a sufficient, step-by-step summary of Tolkien’s life, this does just that. But if you go in expecting to spend some time in the mind of the man who conjured the wonder Middle-Earth, you might be left a little wanting.