Tolkien (2019) Review
Over the years, the dramatic efforts of biopic endeavors have been something of a cinematic fascination with Hollywood, finding filmmaking talents both in front and behind the camera flocking to be apart of these theatrical motion pictures. While the idea of creating a biographical feature film about someone and / or some event isn’t anything new, it is something that’s quite beguiling of capturing the essence / mystique of a character who is based in real life and presenting he / she for a dramatic picture. Some of these endeavors might shed light on their entire life (providing the “life and times” of a particular person), while others might focus on a particular moment and / or a significant point of their lives. Recently, Hollywood has somewhat basked in the idea of creating biopic dramas; finding many talented actors / actresses getting their chance to shine and “dig deep” within their characters to create some powerful and sometimes high caliber performances of their careers. In truth, biopic dramas can pull from many stories of famous individuals from famous leaders (The Queen and Lincoln), to powerful figures of state (Darkest Hour and Vice), to business moguls (Steve Jobs and The Founder), to musicians (Straight Outta Compton and Bohemian Rhapsody), and to literature minds (Finding Neverland and Goodbye Christopher Robin). Now, Fox Searchlight Pictures (the first release under Disney’s control of 20th Century Fox) and director Dome Karukoski present the latest biopic drama from Hollywood by depicting the early life of fantasy writer legend J.R.R. Tolkien in the film Tolkien. Does this biopic of Middle-Earth’s creator find its fantastical roots in writing, love, and imagination or does it get muddy within its presentation?
At a young age, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) was raised in the open countryside or rural England, with his brother Hilary (James MacCallum), but when times grow difficult, his mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) is forced to relocate her boys to the harsh industrial realm of London. When his mother dies prematurely, John and his brother are put into the care of Father Francis (Colm Meaney) and sent to live with a moneyed guardian who also offers shelter to one Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a young pianist girl struggling with conformity. While attending boarding school, John’s life is welcomed by three friends who provide a break from mundane of life, with Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle), Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson) creating a secret society of mutual discussion and support called the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club, Barrovian Society), carrying them through their boarding school days to college at Oxford. Over time, John falls in love with Edith, but soon finds it difficult to commit to such a leap of romantic faith, his school, and his passion projects of fantasy pursuits, including the creation of his unique fairy language. However, Tolkien’s world comes to a halt when World War I breaks out, thrusting John into a Hellish maelstrom of war, with his imagination turning battlefield trauma into a malevolent monsters and dragons.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Within the many viewings of movies that I’ve seeing over the years, biopic dramas features are (to me) quite endearing to watch. Most of these endeavors are pretty well-made and usually a sense of “Oscar-bait” and / or “award contenders” from upcoming award seasons in Hollywood. To that degree, the features being told have also been quite compelling to watch, especially ones that uncover the lives of pronounced individuals and the affect that they left on history (be it entertainment industry, literary realms, or even in historical affairs of nations). Of course, this also brings out some captivating performances from some of Hollywood’s best and brightest actors and actresses as well as showcasing some unknown talents. Some of my personal favorites include Lincoln (love Daniel Day-Lewis in that movie), Finding Neverland (such an endearing / magical story), Darkest Hour (Gary Oldman’s commanding performance was great), and Bohemian Rhapsody (love the music and Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury). Altogether, while the practice of producing biopic features isn’t exactly new, the past few years have reached pinnacle age of biographical storytelling for moviegoers.
This brings me around to talking about Tolkien, a 2019 biopic feature film on the early life of fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien. Of course, being a fan of novels (especially fantasy genre ones), I’ve been a big fan of Tolkien’s works. There’s no doubt that Tolkien is consider the “grandfather” of modem day literary fantasy age; bringing to light the subject magical creatures, beings, and monster to millions of readers out there. This also coincides with the release of Peter Jackson’s two film trilogies: The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and The Hobbit (2012-2014), which gained critical and box office success; showcasing Tolkien’s tales to the masses and making character names of Frodo, Gandalf and Gollum iconic in mainstream pop culture. Given the fascination with recent biopic endeavors, I felt it was almost inevitable that Hollywood would eventually come around to doing a movie about Tolkien’s life. While I didn’t hear much “pre-release” buzz about this movie (i.e. announcements, cast, director, etc.), but I finally did hear about when the film’s movie trailer was released (a teaser and official trailer released two weeks apart). Personally, I was immediately hooked by the movie’s trailers; glimpsing into a cinematic take of Tolkien with the promise of hinting at what inspired him for his fantasy tales of Middle-Earth. So, I went to go see the movie; eagerly hoping that the movie will meet my anticipation for both a film buff / critic and a fan of Tolkien’s fantasy creations. So, what did I think of it? Despite a few areas of which it stumbles, Tolkien is a well-made, well-acted, and well-respected feature film endeavor; showcasing the themes of love, friendship, and imagination within a young man’s life. There’s room for improvement in certain areas, but what’s deliver is quite a polished period piece bio drama that’s quite sincere in its overtures and cinematic nuances.
Tolkien is directed by Dome Karukoski, whose previous directorial works includes movies such as Heart of a Lion, Lapland Odyssey, and Tom of Finland. Given credibly as one of Finland’s most successful directors, Karukoski makes the jump to a more “Americanize” audience and viewers in helming this particular biopic project on the early life of J.R.R. Tolkien. To his credit, Karukoski actually does a great job on Tolkien; showcasing a gentle and sincere story of love, courage, and friendship. There’s definitely a feeling that Karukoski is honoring Tolkien’s life within this project; making each and every scene feel both majestic and cinematically poignant. What’s even better (at least in my opinion), I felt that Karukoski made the feature stand on its own merits and didn’t try to emulate (or recreate) the same levels of iconic and visual flair to that of Peter Jackson’s two Middle-Earth trilogies. There’s definitely a sense of fantasy visuals that are peppered throughout the feature, but Karukoski keeps Tolkien more grounded as a historical period piece, which is definitely a great benefit plus for the film. Additionally, the film’s script, which was penned by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, showcases plenty of life-filled moments that play an instrumental role to Tolkien’s creative mind, with such usage of his friendship with his other T.C.B.S members, his acute fascination of old tales of legends and myth, the passion for languages, and his budding courtship romance with Edith. Those foundations act as the keystone thesis to the feature of which Gleeson and Beresford (as well as Karukoski) make Tolkien’s flow seem endearing and engaging to watch.
As to be expected, Karukoski makes Tolkien have several nods and winks to the inevitable creation of author’s beloved fantasy world of Middle-Earth. While most are not physical referenced as some Tolkien / LOTR fans would want (more on that below), the movie does carry some inspiration moments and scene that hint at certain characters to the author’s work. This includes idea of Tolkien’s love / beauty of nature, the industrial life of urban living (manmade factories of industry), the power of languages, and a few glimpses of some iconic creatures from Tolkien’s imagination (i.e. Sauron, the Balrog, the Nazgul, etc.). They are a few more, but I won’t spoil it. Suffice to say, that the movie definitely lays some subtle hints for the young man’s creative mind to one day lay pen to paper in bringing the horrors (and sometime beauty) to life within Middle-Earth.
As for its presentation, Tolkien is an incredibly well-made feature film endeavor. The overall look and feel of the motion picture’s production is quite compelling to watch as well as being something quite pleasing to look at. The movie’s backdrop setting and era all feel appropriate within the timeframe and is presented in a manner that feels genuine and believable for a more polished historical period piece biopic drama (set in around the time of the 1910s era of England). Thus, the efforts made by Paul Cowell (art direction), Grant Montgomery (production design), Colleen Kelsall (costume designs), and Lasse Frank Johannessen (cinematography) are highly commendable on Tolkien; making the film look exquisite and (like I said) quite a polished period piece feature. Additionally, the film’s score, which was composed by Thomas Newman, is also quite good; offering up an emotional score that seems harmonize with the feature’s story.
There are few problematic areas that Tolkien can’t escape, which do hold the biopic feature from reaching cinematic greatness within its storytelling of the illustrious author’s formative years. Perhaps recognizable criticism that many will undoubtedly find while viewing this movie is the simple fact it only covers the half of Tolkien’s life. Of course, it’s been previously stated the film would follow the early life of the author, especially concerning his courtship / romance of Edith, his friendship with the T.C.B.S. members, and the events of WWI. That being said, the latter years of Tolkien’s life (of which the movie doesn’t cover) are also significant and play a vital role in the shaping his The Lord of Rings’s creation, especially after the release of The Hobbit and the events that unfolded in Europe during WWII. Thus, the movie feels like its “missing out” on fully embracing Tolkien’s biographical life. Personally, I wished that the movie did show the latter years of Tolkien’s life, especially when considering the author’s future relationship with fellow Oxford professor C.S. Lewis, the author behind the beloved children’s fantasy novels The Chronicles of Narnia.
Because of this, Tolkien has several more issues that stem within that criticism of narration. The story being told is not in question, but rather how it is all handled and laid out (structurally-wise). As a whole, the movie seems to create “broad strokes” within Tolkien’s experiences by hitting all the right highs and lows within the film’s runtime, which clocks in around one hour and fifty-two minutes (112 minutes). Thus, the feature wants to examine a lot (and justly so) within Tolkien’s life, but ends up shortchanging certain characters and events in the process. It goes hand and hand with each other and what’s in the film is presentable, but could’ve been easily expanded upon. This also results in Tolkien being a standard biopic endeavor; finding its framework to be predictable and formulaic, despite finding the tale worth telling. What’s probably the most frustrating (at least to me) is in the film’s final twenty minutes, which seems to tack on an ending that feels hallow. Of course, the ending point for the feature is what I would expect it to be (offering a satisfying poignant moment to close the film out on), but the build up point to that particular moments feels disconnected, with a subtext and plot holes created and left unanswered…as if the movie “skips out” on several important pieces to Tolkien’s life (something that happened in the 2017 biopic drama film Goodbye Christopher Robin).
Additionally, some LOTR fans out there might not be slightly disappointed that the biopic movie isn’t as epic or grand as to Jackson’s two cinematic trilogies as the film only depicts (rather hints) at several reference inspiration moments from Tolkien’s life and experiences. Perhaps one reason of this is due to the fact that the Tolkien Estate wants nothing to do with this particular film…stating that their “wish to make clear that they did not approve of, authorise or participate in the making of this film”, and that “they do not endorse it or its content in any way”. As to why the Tolkien doesn’t have the blessing from the Tolkien Estate….it remains unclear. I’m sure that they have their reasons and it is probably most likely due to the fact that the movie changes / alters certain events in Tolkien’s life for a more dramatic purpose in the feature. This, of course, is a common practice in biopic features having more of a “poetic / theatrical license” in taking certain liberties to a “based on a true story”. Thus, perhaps the Estate felt that the movie’s script by Gleeson and Beresford wasn’t what they felt was a perfect cinematic representation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life and the legacy he left, so they didn’t want to “endorse” the feature in any way, shape, or form. However, borrowing the lines that Gandalf says in 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey “All good stories deserve a little embellishment”.
Because of this, the movie probably can’t make clear cut references to certain characters and places from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but is, more or less, allowed to make subtle hints and alluded to certain influences that lead to some of Tolkien’s creation. To me, it doesn’t bother me as much, but it might to some viewers out there, especially to those who are looking heavily hand references and journey creative process of the English author eventually creating his Lord of the Rings trilogy (of which the film never shows).
While the feature’s narrative structure is a simple “paint by numbers” endeavor, the cast of Tolkien help elevate those criticism; finding most (if not all) the acting talents involve on this project of the quality variety and bring these characters (and the story being told) to life. At the center of the feature is the film’s protagonist character of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who is played actor Nicholas Hoult. Known for his roles in X-Men: Days of Futures Past, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Warm Bodies, Hoult definitely seems like a perfect match to play the titular English author. There’s a sense of kind and gentleness to Hoult of which he imbues within his portrayal of Tolkien as well as an intellectually warmth and curious mind that’s on display throughout the film. In addition, Hoult doesn’t overact the role, but rather underplays Tolkien, making the character portrayal quite endearing for us (the viewers) to see in both the actor and in his iteration of Tolkien. While he probably won’t get nominated for any awards in playing Tolkien in the movie, Hoult’s performance is nevertheless solid and the bedrock foundation for making the movie work. As a side-note, young actor Harry Gilby does a great job as the younger version of Tolkien.
Behind Hoult’s portrayal of Tolkien is actress Lily Collins, who plays the romantic counterpart to the English author Edith Bratt. Collins, known for her roles in Blind Slide, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and The Mortal Instrument: City of Bones, is equally good as Edith, sharing a strong on-screen connection with Hoult, which definitely lends credence to the film’s relationship / romance between her and Tolkien. Coinciding with that, Collins captures a sense of thoughtful and passionate feeling within Edith, which juxtapose against Hoult’s portrayal of Tolkien is quite enchanting. One particular scene with the pair together at fancy restaurant definitely embodies that idea.
In the large supporting characters ranks are the Tolkien’s friends and members of the T.C.B.S. This includes actors Anthony Boyle (The Lost City of Z and The Plot Against America) as poet Geoffrey Bache Smith, Tom Glynn-Carney (Dunkirk and The Last Post) as musician Christopher Wiseman, and Patrick Gibson (The Darkest Minds and In a Relationship) as artist Robert Q. Gilson. Of the three, Boyle’s Geoffrey gets the most development / screen-time, which is mostly due to the script laying the connection friendship between him and Tolkien that most stirring. Glynn-Carney’s Christopher and Gibson’s Robert are a bit less developed by comparison, but all three T.C.B.S. members definitely go share a sense of collegiate camaraderie comes through in their various scenes together. This is also aided by the acting behind these characters, which (again) elevate their shortcomings in character development beyond their initial affection for the world of arts. Likewise, the younger version of Tolkien’s T.C.B.S. friends, who are played by actors Adam Bregman (Geoffrey), Ty Tennant (Christopher), and Albie Marber (Robert), give good performances in the movie.
Moving along down the “supporting players line”, actors Colm Meaney (Layer Cake and Hell on Wheels) and Derek Jacobi (Gladiator and Gosford Park) act as the “seasoned veteran” of the film’s cast; finding their roles of Father Francis Morgan and Professor Joseph Wright to be impactful to Tolkien’s life. Together, both Meaney and Jacobi are well-suited in their respective characters, especially Jacobi, who seems to easily slide into the role with effortless ease.
Rounding out the cast are several minor characters, including actress Genevieve O’Reilly (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and The Kid Who Would Be King) as Mrs. Smith (Geoffrey Smith’s mother), actor Owen Teale (Game of Thrones and A Discovery of Witches) as Headmaster Gilson (Robert Gilson’s father), actress Pam Ferris (Rosemary & Thyme and Matilda) as Tolkien / Edith’s boarding house landlord Mrs. Faulkner, actress Laura Donnelly (Outlander and The Fall) as Tolkien’s mother Mabel, and actor Guillermo Bedward (Rocketman and Home) as Tolkien’s younger version of his brother Hilary (actor James MacCallum plays the older version of Hilary). While majority of these players only have small parts to play in the feature, the acting talents behind them are (much like the rest of the film) are of quality theatrical caliber; making their appearance in the Tolkien (not matte how limited their screen-time is) believable within their respective minor characters.
A life of love, courage, and fellowship lies at the heart of a young man’s journey in the movie Tolkien. Director Dome Karukoski’s film examines formative years of J.R.R. Tolkien, revealing his past experiences and upbringing that ultimately shapes and inspired his prolithic literary fantasy world (and its timeless tales) in the future. While the movie doesn’t make pronounced revelations to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth as much as everyone would’ve wanted and does sometime fumble within its standard biopic structure (including a tactic on ending), the movie genuinely feels like a labor of love to the author’s early life, producing a well-made historical period piece / biopic drama that’s certainly feels theatrically (both dramatic / emotionally) charged and is lead by the feature’s beautiful presentation, Hoult and Collin’s solid performances, and strong focus on the themes of love and friendship. Personally, I liked this movie. Despite some criticism here and there, I found the movie to be quite enjoyable and sincere within its biographical overtures. It’s not an incredibly grand or epic in comparison to Peter Jackson’s two Middle-Earth film trilogies, but what was presented is quite sincere and well-made. That being said, I’m probably going “against the grain” in appreciation this film more so than the common people. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is both a “recommended” as well as an “iffy choice” as the feature can be interpreted on a much wider range from its viewers (i.e. some might like it, while other won’t). In the end, while it may not have the approval blessing of the Tolkien Estate and isn’t the revolutionary endeavor to shake up the plethora of biopic dramas of Hollywood of late, the film Tolkien stands as a respectable and earnest endeavor, shedding a dramatized cinematic lens on part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life and the hinting notions that shaped the author’s mind into creating his utopia fantasy setting of wizards, elves, dwarves, and hobbits.
3.9 Out of 5 (Recommended / Iffy-Choice)
Released On: May 10th, 2019
Reviewed On: May 13th, 2019
Tolkien is 112 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence