Film review: TOLKIEN by Nick Gardener from ‘Built for Speed’

Tolkien is the literate, sophisticated but occasionally lacklustre biopic of The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit author JRR Tolkien. Directed by Finn, Dome Karukoski (The Grump) the film sees Tolkien as a young officer (Nicholas Hoult) in the hell of the trenches in First World War France. Wounded and delirious he recalls his early life in which he (Harry Gilby) and his brother Hilary (Guillermo Bedward) were orphaned as teens and with financial support from local priest (Colm Meaney) were sent to a foster home and an upmarket boys’ school. There Tolkien met three intellectually inclined chaps who all look like members of 80’s new romantic band ABC and with whom he forged a powerful friendship. It was also at this time that Tolkien met the love of his life Edith (Lily Collins).

In its depiction of ambitious, ebullient, well-to-do English lads amid early 20th century British academia, the film seems to be trying to emulate Chariots of Fire although it’s never as rousing as that 80’s classic. The flashbacks to that time are occasionally too twee and slow moving with lengthy tea-room conversations that aren’t especially riveting in themselves or telling about the characters. Still, they make a striking contrast with the horror of the war scenes.

One of the issues with a film like this is that many audience members will want insights into the forces that shaped the main character’s work. There is some of that as the young Tolkien draws on Norse mythology, Wagner’s ring cycle, the vivid adventure tales with which his mother delighted him and his brother and his traumatic experiences on the battlefield, to construct his Middle Earth epics. Still, this is largely peripheral to his personal story of romance with Edith and comradery with his school chums.

The film touches on a number of interesting themes, primarily the idea of language as the cornerstone of civilisation and culture and a bulwark against the chaos and brutality of horrific events like the First World War. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite delve into these themes as much as we might like.

Hoult does a fine job here, convincingly portraying Tolkien as a quietly confident intellectual. He receives fine support from his fellowship of lads, especially Anthony Boyle as Geoffrey Bache Smith his most loyal buddy and one whose affection for Tolkien apparently went further than friendship. Lily Collins is also endearingly feisty as Edith; she apparently inspired a couple of the elf warrior women in Lord of the Rings. It’s also a treat to see one of the greats, Derek Jacobi as Tolkien’s Oxford linguistics professor and possible inspiration for Gandalf.

While it’s an impressively cultured piece of film-making, Tolkien stalls a little too often and isn’t quite the insight into the birth of The Lord of the Rings that many will probably want.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Biopic.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Dome Karukoski.

Release date: 13th June 2019.

Running time: 112 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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