Tolkien review

Tolkien: it’s much better than it looks! That’s my one sentence review of Fox Searchlight’s new biopic about John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the author of novels like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and the father of modern fantasy writing, but I’ll devote several more to explaining why it’s worth your time.

If you’re anything like me – someone who loves Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but has only read a small number of Tolkien’s books – you may have found yourself either shrugging your shoulders at the trailers for this film or rolling your eyes at the Middle-earth references dotted throughout. I reacted the same way, but came away from the movie pleasantly surprised at how well many of those moments work in the context of director Dome Karukoski‘s coming of age story. Yes, there are a few clunky lines here and there (“it shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring,” someone cracks about a Wagner opera), but a majority of the movie’s “easter egg” moments are artfully executed, slowly building a tapestry of inspirations and ideas from which Tolkien would draw when he eventually sat down to write his most acclaimed works.

But this movie doesn’t cover his time as a famous writer, instead focusing on his gruesome experiences in World War I and flashing back to his youth, during which time he lost both parents and became a ward of the church. The young Tolkien (Harry Gilby, later Nicholas Hoult) and his school pals co-found a secret society dedicated to changing the world through art, and he develops a romance with a fellow orphan named Edith Bratt (Mimi Keene, later Lily Collins). The chemistry between Hoult and Collins is electric, and it’s easily one of the film’s greatest strengths; in the film’s most sensual scene, sparks fly as we learn about Tolkien’s love of languages and see how Edith pushes him creatively, their hands delicately intertwining while every glance is loaded with desire.

Much of the movie is spent in school environments, and the film is bursting with Dead Poets Society vibes: warm cinematography, an excellent atmospheric score from Thomas Newman, idealistic young people embracing their true passions, veteran professors willing to give them a shot, and one of the boys triumphantly standing up to an authority figure.

Then the war breaks out.

While the rest of the movie is conventionally shot, Karukoski uses the war scenes to lay the groundwork for what would become the horrors of Middle-earth. Soldiers being burned with flame throwers on the battlefield are enhanced by visions of dragons, POV shots through the eyes of a gas mask reveal knights on horseback attacking each other, and everything culminates with Tolkien leaping out of a trench, into the fray, and staring down a vision of the lord of all evil.

Tolkien has a passing interest in exploring class and social status. Collins’ best work comes in a scene in which Edith tearfully explains to John Ronald that she isn’t afforded the same opportunities he is because she’s a woman, and it’s easy to relate to Hoult’s frustration when Edith and Tolkien are turned away from the opera because he can’t afford tickets. Mostly, though, the movie is about legacy and what we leave behind in the stories we tell to our children – not only stories about hobbits and wizards, but about the friends we made along the way. That might sound cheesy, and maybe it is. But what can I say: even a sometimes-cheesy paean to the power of art can be an encouraging, spirit-renewing thing in 2019.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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