WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Tolkien explores the formative years of the orphaned author as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school. This takes him into the outbreak of World War I, which threatens to tear the "fellowship" apart. All of these experiences would inspire Tolkien to write his famous Middle-Earth novels.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
We had two writers review Tolkien and they had two very different experiences.
There's a scene in Tolkien where J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) sits next to his best friend, Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle) somewhere within the halls of Oxford University midst a fencing match. The conversation between the two men was so prolific that it stuck with me long after I had walked out of the cinema and faded back into my real-life.
In the scene, Geoffrey talks to John Ronald Reuel about the topic of love – specifically love that can't be returned. When you have a love for someone that doesn't love you back it's immensely painful, Geoffrey admits, but it's also extremely beautiful. He continues to explain to his puzzled friend that a love that never gets returned is one that remains untainted by reality and burns just as strong in the end as it did in the beginning – in a sense making it the most powerful kind of love.
Everything leading up to this scene and that which follow, so effortlessly dance with the golden thread spun throughout all the sun-kissed scenes of Tolkien which is drenched in the light of love and friendship – two important themes in poetry and literature.
The film delves into Tolkien's earlier years and explores the biggest events that influenced the writings of one of the most renowned fantasy authors ever. As with any big screen adaptation, the film takes creative liberties that Tolkien's trust and family have distanced themselves from. But, the film does no damage to the reputation of the prolific author that created some of the most celebrated fantasy books ever published.
Fans of Tolkien might expect a lot more fantasy elements in the film, but the story is deeply rooted in reality, with merely a whiff of the mythical. The talented cast delivers excellent performances, the story is told with a refined sense of deep respect, exceptional grace, and a slight sprinkling of humour.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Tolkien, highly recommend it, and would feel more than honoured if ever anyone were to make a film in my honour to this calibre. But as a wise man once said: "False hopes are more dangerous than fears". So, decide for yourself.
Though Tolkien came out a while back overseas, the decision to release it within a couple of weeks of the Elton John biopic-cum-musical Rocketman here in South Africa, unfortunately, does it no favours. For all that Rocketman followed your usual biopic structure, it felt incredibly fresh, and original thanks to its Ken Russell inspired visuals and, as near as I can tell, for being the first ever musical biopic to be staged as an actual musical. Tolkien, unfortunately, has little to distinguish it from any other literary biopic and doesn’t do much to paint Tolkien (pronounced, “Tol-Keen”, apparently) himself as anywhere near as interesting as his famous fantasy epics. And I say this as someone who has never been a fan of the Middle Earth saga.
On the flipside, though, there’s nothing here that would disgrace the man himself. Tolkien may be a decidedly middle-of-the-road biopic, but it is one told with utmost competency, if not necessarily much verve. Cypriot/ Finnish director, Dome Karukoski, may not have made an English-language film before but Tolkien still feels like the work of someone very much at home not just with filmmaking but with a decidedly English form of filmmaking.
Part of that may, of course, just be the result of portraying a very English (albeit Bloemfontein-born) writer’s life during the peak of the British Empire in the none-more-British Oxford education system but somewhere between Karukoski and the English/ Irish writing team of Stephen Beresford and David Gleeson, there’s a clear love for – or at least a clear fascination with – a very specific form of English life that was perhaps best romanticized by the likes of Ray Davies of the Kinks. It’s so specifically upper-upper-class, in fact, that it falls only just on the right side of parodic but, by all indications, the highly repressed, unfailingly polite and erudite society portrayed here is as much an accurate depiction as it is a cultural stereotype.
Getting the setting right was crucial because of just how much his background played a part in forming who J.R.R Tolkien was ultimately to become. Here was a child of a family first left destitute by the death of his father in South Africa and then bereft by the death of his mother soon afterwards, who through the kindness of the family priest and a stern but charitable elderly foster-mother, would find himself rubbing shoulders with England’s most privileged sons and daughters.
Indeed, the background details are well drawn enough that it’s hard not to wish that more was done with them thematically. Aside for initially depicting Tolkien’s difficulties with fitting into his new environment and occasionally having he and his friends joke about how “poor” he and his (largely forgotten) brother are, his particular social-economic background is largely ignored. Conversely, though, it’s hard not to appreciate the subtlety with which some of these elements are handled. The film could easily have made a show of having “spoilt” upper-class kids finding themselves side by side with the “hoi polloi” in battle, but instead it went for something much more interesting: let’s just say that when news of England going to war is announced on the green grounds of Oxford University, pay special attention to the way the soon-to-be-drafted young men react to the news. It’s not exactly what we would expect.
It’s hard, also, not to fixate on these background details because though the always-impressive Nicholas Hoult does a typically fine job of portraying the highly introverted (or is that just highly British) Tolkien, we aren’t given much insight into who Tolkien was as a person. This may be in part due to the Tolkien family and estate wanting absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the film (they have publicly distanced themselves from it a number of times), but it might just be that Tolkien himself may have been a linguistic genius and, by all accounts, a genuinely decent human being but he just wasn’t massively interesting. He certainly wasn’t if the film is anything to go by.
It’s ironic that for a biopic that is this straightforward, it’s actually the biographical aspects that aren’t just the least interesting but are actually of least interest to the film itself. Along with some pretty eye-rolling moments of the real-life inspiration for Tolkien’s writing and a nicely handled evocation of an England that presumably no longer exists, Tolkien is first and foremost a love story.
It’s a love story between Tolkien and Edith, his fellow lodger who would go on to become his wife, as portrayed beautifully by Hoult and Lily Collins (the two have real chemistry but then, I’m reasonably sure that Lily Collins could have real chemistry with a brick) of a relationship that goes from an unrequited crush to something much more powerful, but with some inevitable complications along the way.
More than anything, though, it’s a love story between friends; the kind of friends that come into your life at just the right time and make an indelible impression on you. The kind that are connected to you even if you end up never seeing them again. Whatever else you might say about Tolkien, its handling of the enduring friendship between Tolkien and his fellow members of their literary club, the TCBS (the Tea Club and Barrovian Society) is superb and for all the obvious winks to real-life influences on Tolkien’s work, it wisely shows this particular “fellowship” as his greatest inspiration.