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With the market seemingly still able to support J.R.R. Tolkien-related content but nearly nothing left to adapt, what is a studio to do? If you’re Fox Searchlight, the answer lies in the biopic TOLKIEN, of course. When the author has nothing left to give, you just have to squeeze his life story.

Is the author’s life, well… interesting, though? Does it compare to, say, hordes of orcs descending upon a small band of heroes with the world in the balance? It seems unlikely, but let’s take a gander.

Nicholas Hoult, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, and Tom Glynn-Carney bro down in a scene from TOLKIEN. (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

The Idea Behind TOLKIEN

Beginning shortly after the death of his father, TOLKEIN does not cover the completion of any of his novels or their success. Indeed, TOLKIEN concludes with the author recording the first sentence of what will become THE HOBBIT.

Instead, the movie concerns itself with the hardships Tolkien endured as a boy (played by Harry Gilby) including the death of his mother, placement in a school where he is by the far the least wealthy, and living largely on his own in a boarding home with his brother Hilary (Guillermo Bedward). However, it is also during this period that the would-be writer bonds with three fellow students, Robert Gilson (Albie Marber), Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant), and Geoffrey Smith (Adam Bregman). Each wants to change the world through art — Gilson as a painter, Wiseman as a composer, and Smith as a poet. Together they form the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, TCBS for short. Tolkien’s only other source of joy is the boarding house’s other orphan boarder, Edith Bratt (Mimi Keene).

After a short time jump, we re-meet the TCBS, now teenagers but looking for all the world like 20-somethings. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) and Smith (Anthony Boyle) have their hearts set on Oxford, Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Gilson (Patrick Gibson) on Cambridge. And, of course, there remains the matter of Tolkien and Bratt’s (Lily Collins) blossoming romance, something that neither J.R.R.’s Catholic priest guardian Father Francis (Colm Meaney) nor the boarding house operator who sees Edith as her housegirl Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris) approve of.

And all of this is before WWI rears its ugly head.

Lily Collins dances her heart out, slowly, in a recurring motif from TOLKIEN. (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)


David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford’s script unfolds largely linearly. However, almost as if someone stopped trusting the material, they also indulge in periodic cuts forward to World War I. There is never a compelling reason offered to make this structural choice, though. Nothing we see in WWI is enhanced by presenting it out of order. Nothing about the rest of the movie is enhanced by occasionally visiting the battlefield. Similarly, nothing in WWI would be a spoiler if the story unfolded linearly. It baffles me a bit, to be honest. The structure fails to enhance the storytelling in the least.

What Gleeson and Beresford do well is capture the kind of singular friendships that can grow out of our tweens and teens. Even though we are watching male bonding nearly 100 years earlier, we see the familiar beats and rituals. Separated by generations or not, it feels relatable and honest.

Amongst the trenches of WWI, Tolkien hallucinates a fire breathing dragon. (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

Casting the Actors

I feel a weird sort of protectiveness for Nicholas Hoult. I, like most, first “met” him in ABOUT A BOY and appreciated him straight away. Since then, I have found him compelling in several roles including Beast in the very uneven X-MEN films and his work in the teen soap SKINS. TOLKIEN provides further evidence that Hoult has a strong on-screen presence and can produce great work even if the film is not always rising to meet him there.

Gilby, as the young Tolkien, proves quite good, as well. If anything, I like his performance more because Gilby never found himself saddled with some of the truly bland trench-wandering Hoult has to endure.

Honestly, the younger cast — Marber, Tennant, and Bregman — does get the better part of the script across the board. The adults — Glynn-Carney, Gibson, and Boyle — only get two strong scenes together. One takes place in Gilson’s billiards room where Robert finally stands up to his headmaster father (Owen Teale) and is easily Gibson’s best moment and TCBS’s celebration feels delightful. Then, later, the quartet restates their commitment to one another on an abandoned bus in a scene that works despite how forced it feels.

Collins has little to do as Bratt but does very well with it. Keene as the younger Bratt has even less to do. While she has a nice ethereal feel to her work, she otherwise cannot find much to dig down into. It is clear that Tolkien thinks the world of her, but, alas, the movie too often tells rather than lets the two actors show us why.

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Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins seduce each other via opera costume in a scene from TOLKIEN. (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

Directing TOLKIEN

Dome Karukoski is a competent director who can find powerful images from time to time. I greatly dislike the moments where the film forces its idea of where Tolkien’s inspirations came from. Nonetheless, it still produces one of the most arresting moments in the film. Hoult rises from a trench to face down a flaming giant, a horde of wraiths, and a dragon on the WWI battlefield. It is an incredible composition.

In general, however, you can almost feel Karukoski forcing it. He clearly loves Tolkien’s work. That desire to honor the man behind it makes the director reach too often for the profound. Meanwhile, the film’s strengths actually lie in its small human moments. Thus, a scene of Hoult and Collins tossing sugar cubes in women’s hats — apparently a real event — ends too quickly. On the other hand, scenes of Collins dancing like an elf go long and recur often.

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Nicholas Hoult stares into the middle distance in TOLKIEN. (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

That’s a Wrap

TOLKIEN offers some strong performances and proves surprisingly affecting when it focuses on the human. Those looking for a peek inside the brain of Tolkien or his creative process, though, will likely go home unhappy.

When the movie keeps it simple and fleeting — a peek of a leathery wing, a distant giant king — it casts an eerie kind of energy I quite like. However, when it screams for the viewer to notice — Tolkien whispering “fellowship,” a dark knight killing British soldiers during the Battle of the Somme – it feels so achingly false. The most egregious of these involves an infantryman named Sam who helps Tolkien look for Geoffrey Smith. It begins as groan-worthy and only gets worse.

I wish the film had definitively chosen to just focus on the quartet of friends. Making the thesis more about how World War I destroyed a generation of Europeans and much of the art they could have given us seems far more compelling. Instead, the awkward inclusion of “see, this is where Samwise came from” makes the movie feel sluggish and empty.

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