Entertainment

Movie review: ‘Tolkien’ is an actors’ showcase but is probably light on actual biography

Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) becomes a mentor to J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult). [Fox Searchlight]
Ed Symkus More Content Now
Posted: May. 6, 2019 10:58 am

First, a bit of movie history concerning films based on works by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. There was the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (“The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers,” and “The Return of the King”), followed by the Hobbit trilogy (“An Unexpected Journey,” “The Desolation of Smaug,” and “The Battle of the Five Armies”). Those Peter Jackson-directed epics were made between 2001 and 2014, and had a combined running time of just over 17 hours. But they were predated by the animated feature “The Lord of the Rings” (1978), two TV movies (“The Hobbit” and “The Return of the King” (1977, 1980), the Russian TV movie “Skazochnoe puteshestvie mistera Bilbo Begginsa, Khobbita” (1985), and the Finnish TV series “Hobitit” (1993).

More films are coming, and an Amazon TV series is in the works. But wouldn’t it be nice to know a bit about the man who created Middle-earth, its inhabitants, and their various adventures?

“Tolkien,” the biographical feature about the British author (1892-1973), is a look at him as a boy and as a young man, and purportedly reveals how the circumstances of his early days eventually led to him sitting down, putting pen to paper, and producing some of the world’s most popular fantasy literature.

The film has a lot going both for and against it. Because I enjoyed it, let’s get the negatives out of the way. It’s been disavowed by the Tolkien estate with - as far as I can tell - no reasons given. It comes across as a kind of by-the-numbers biography, delving into flashbacks but telling its story in chronological order within them. Of course, that makes it easy to follow, but it also smacks of flatness. Aside from a few nicely wrought and placed visual effects that seek to explore Tolkien’s imagination, there’s no flashiness to the film.

But, on to the positive side of things. Despite impeccable production design and well-crafted dialogue - as should be expected, since the main subject is a man who was enthralled by language - this is all about the near-faultless acting.

The early stages of the story concern young Tolkien’s time spent at King Edward’s School in Birmingham where (it seems some liberties have been taken with certain facts here) he met three fellow budding academics with whom he would form a sort of fellowship of the arts. Whether or not all of this happened as shown here, there are some remarkably relaxed and believable performances from Harry Gilby as Tolkien, Albie Marber as Robert Gilson, Ty Tennant as Christopher Wiseman, and Adam Bregman as Geoffrey Smith.

While exploring the close-knit relationship that develops with these lads, the script also looks into what was happening between Tolkien, who was orphaned and living in a foster home, and Edith (Mimi Keene), another orphan in the same home. No one watching will doubt for a moment that the friendship will turn into something else.

As the film jumps forward in time, young actors are exchanged for older ones: Nicholas Hoult takes over as Tolkien, with Patrick Gibson, Tom Glyn-Carney, and Anthony Boyle becoming Gilson, Wiseman, and Smith, and Lily Collins stepping into the Edith role. All are terrific, all work well with each other, and the right sort of sparks fly between the older Tolkien and Edith.

Weaving in and out of the studies of these characters are looks at the importance of language and friendship to Tolkien, and at how different adults either aided or impeded him as he fumbled through his early years - a priest (Colm Meaney) gets in the way, while a professor (Derek Jacobi) proves to be a mentor. WWI events are horrific but, it’s suggested, might have played a part in later igniting Tolkien’s imagination, and is where in the film’s few visual effects are put to good use.

In the end, I had some questions. Was I disappointed by my own expectations? Yes. Was I caught up in the film’s spell? Yes. Have I come to the realization that Hoult is a better actor than he gets credit for? I did that a while ago. Have I become enticed to at least think about re-reading the Tolkien novels? I believe so.

Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Tolkien”
Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford; directed by Dome Karukoski
With Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Patrick Gibson, Anthony Boyle, Tom Glynn-Carney
Rated PG-13

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