From leaders to powerful figures, musicians and literary writers, the dramatic efforts of biopic endeavours have been something of a cinematic fascination for Hollywood, with filmmaking talent (both from in front and behind the camera) flocking to be a part of these pictures. While the idea of creating a biographical feature about a person or event isn’t new, it can be quite beguiling in its ability to capture the essence and mystique of a character based in real life and render them on the big screen. Such is the case is with the biopic Tolkien, a dramatisation of the life of the titular writer and the events that shaped his Middle-earth fantasies.
Exploring the formative years of the orphaned author, the movie follows John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) as he finds friendship, camaraderie and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at boarding school, with the quartet forming a secret club that challenges their inner muses and passions, taking them through the school years to their attendance at Oxford. At the same time, Tolkien finds romance within the lovely Edith Bratt (Lily Collins): the pair spend time together and a courtship ensues against the better wishes of his guardian caretaker, Father Francis (Colm Meaney). However, Tolkien’s world comes to a halt when World War I breaks out, thrusting the protagonist into a hellish maelstrom of conflict, with his imagination turning battlefield trauma into malevolent monsters and dragons and threatening to tear his “fellowship” apart.
Directed by Dome Karukoski, Tolkien explores the early life of The Lord of Rings’s author, examining the events that would ultimately inspire him to put pen to paper in creating his fictional world of Middle-earth. As to be expected, there are plenty of nods and winks to the writer’s work, which many fans will be able to recognise. Throughout the feature, Karukoski juxtaposes Tolkien’s upbringing (through life, love and friendship) against the backdrop sequences of his involvement in WWI, which punctuates the picture with enough jolts of action before falling back into the biopic drama beats. In addition, the movie’s presentation (production designs, costumes, set decorations, cinematography) is quite beautiful, creating a very polished historical period piece that “looks and feels” authentic. In addition, the film’s score, which was composed by Thomas Newman, is rather moving, stirring various scenes with emotion.
However, the feature does have a few drawbacks, the most notable one being that it follows a predictable narrative structure, which means that it is formulaic from start to finish. The story being told is quite compelling, but Tolkien just feels like a standard biopic (no more, no less). The movie also doesn’t directly reference certain inspirations from his latter Middle-earth tales as much as viewers would probably want to see, but merely alludes to them through imagery and shared events throughout Tolkien’s life. Again, the ideas are there, but those looking for clear-cut references might be disappointed. Also, the film’s final 15 minutes seem a bit rushed, as if this section was tacked on at the very end of the script-writing process.
The cast is a solid one, with every acting talent involved (be it major or minor) giving a quality performance as their respective character. At the heart of it all is Nicholas Hoult, who gives a sincere and grounded performance in the central role. In truth, there’s a sense of kind and gentleness to Hoult which shines through in his portrayal of Tolkien, as well as an intellectual warmth and curiousity that’s on display throughout the film. Likewise, Lily Collins plays Bratt with thoughtfulness and passion. It also helps that she and Hoult have a great on-screen chemistry with one another, lending credence to her character’s relationship with Tolkien.
Additionally, much like 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, the picture tries to focus on several supporting characters (mostly Tolkien’s school friends, who inspired his artistic passion for writing and languages), but their personas don’t quite resonate as strong as they could (again, the feature focuses more on Tolkien and Edith than them). Still, the acting talents behind them help counteract these flaws, showcasing the compassion born of strong friendship and youthful camaraderie.
What’s perhaps most shocking is that the Tolkien Estate doesn’t want any part of this movie (a perplexing notion), though they no doubt have their reasons in preserving the legacy that the author left behind.
In the end, while it may not have the blessing of the writer’s family, and isn’t quite the revolutionary release to shake up the plethora of biopic dramas being churned out by Hollywood of late, Tolkien stands as a earnest endeavour, turning a dramatised cinematic lens on part of the literary icon’s life and hinting at what led him to create his fantasy world of wizards, elves, dwarves and hobbits. It’s not the brightest biopic, but it is indeed a solid and respectable one.
Tolkien is released nationwide on 3rd May 2019.
Watch the trailer for Tolkien here: