Directed by: Dome Karukoski
Premise: A biographical story of academic and writer J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The story focuses on his time in school and his military service in World War I.
What Works: By far the strongest portions of Tolkien are the sequences taking place in the trenches of World War I. J.R.R. Tolkien served in the British army during the Battle of the Somme and he was witness to the horrors of war. The World War I scenes are well photographed and include some striking images. These sequences also integrate visual allusions to Tolkien’s Middle Earth books and the filmmakers do this especially well, hinting at dragons and other fantastic beasts in the haze of chemical warfare but without spelling it out.
What Doesn’t: The heart of the movie is J.R.R. Tolkien’s relationship with his schoolmates. The whole film is built around the bonds he makes as a young man and how those friends were lost to war. And it is in this respect that the movie falls flat. As depicted here, Tolkien spent his school days hanging with a group of fellow students but none of them are distinct. They are all interchangeable British school boys and we rarely see them do anything except sit around a table and drink tea. The boys don’t get into adventures that bond them as a group nor do those friendships suffer through any meaningful tests. The boys’ scenes together are flat and their banter comes across artificial. Tolkien also dramatizes the author’s fascination with language but it doesn’t do that toward any end. His skill at concocting fictional languages is reflected in Tolkien’s Middle Earth books but these scenes don’t tell us anything about the man nor do they deepen the story. It’s just authorial trivia dramatized on the screen. Tolkien also includes a love story between the author and Edith Bratt. Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins are an agreeable on-screen couple and their early scenes together play well, especially their date to the opera. But this subplot falls apart late in the movie. The love story creates a conflict only to arbitrarily toss it aside. The narrative of Tolkien is organized with a nonlinear structure, bouncing between the author’s school days and the trenches of World War I. Nothing cues the transitions from past to present nor is there any point in juxtaposing scenes that way. And that is the problem with this movie. It recounts J.R.R. Tolkien’s life but it doesn’t have anything interesting to say about him or his life’s work.
Bottom Line: Tolkien is an underwhelming biographical picture. It may be enjoyable for fans of the author’s Middle Earth stories but it doesn’t offer any fresh perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien or his literary works. This film is a well-produced version of educational videos shown in high school classrooms.
Episode: #750 (May 18, 2019)