Movie Review: ‘Tolkien’ Is Not a Portrait of the Artist

Tolkien is a film covering the early life of J.R.R. Tolkien through his college years and World War I up to the point when he formally begins writing the work that ultimately becomes The Hobbit.

For those who know little about Tolkien’s background, director Dome Karukoski’s initial story direction does an excellent job of pulling the audience into a young Tolkien’s life just as it goes under traumatic changes. The visuals and narrative direction set a somber tone but only loosely show any part of his upbringing life that help understand his artistic sensibilities. In a biopic, “show” is always better than telling but in this case, a little more time spent on his relationship with his mother and younger brother might have better grounded the fictional version of Tolkien and increased the impact of witnessing his formative years unfold.

TOLKIEN. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
TOLKIEN. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Karukoski began skimming the surface of Tolkien’s life that it’s easy to miss that writing, drawing and his love of language pre-dates most of his formal education. Being creative was his coping mechanism and means of escaping. Instead of using the time to explore the connection between his art and how it shaped his outlook as his family fell on hard times and suffered losses, the narrative essentially reduces his mother’s role and influence on his life to little more importance than a few beautifully shot scenes.

This entire story relies on non-linear flashbacks to divert attention away from the lack of real focus on his actual state of mind or feelings. The audience must repeatedly rely on inferences to make connections where the narrative fails to follow through. On a superficial level, it works. Tolkien frames this author’s life in stills that created a lens through which to view pivotal elements of his work. But that in conjunction with the well-curated costuming and imagery does very little to tell you who this man was. Unfortunately, the film carries on like this right through to the end. I found it to be a waste of several talented young actors particularly because it felt like the director was merely rushing until it was reasonable to move on to the stages of his life portrayed by Nicholas Hoult.

So, while there’s a delicate and intriguing sense of fan-service Tolkien’s life is continuously lost in the mix. This film does little to delve into his actual relationships with people and knee-jerks instead to being a highlight reel of possibly important characters in his life. Every time the story begins to be grounded and feel real, the subject (and story tempo) changes.

TOLKIEN. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Nicholas Hoult in the film TOLKIEN. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Nicholas Hoult, while a great choice for adult Tolkien, fails to resonate during his teenage years. The jump from the perfectly cast Harry Gilby as young Tolkien to Hoult is too abrupt and fully disengages from realistic story progression. It’s hard to believe him given his height and the visible years on his face. Hoult in no way resembles a teenager in the throws fo first love or huddling around a coffee table whispering secrets and bits of prose to his friends. Translating the script-to-screen is always a delicate dance and Tolkien is a record with nicks across its grooves. The dialogue works, the moments in time engaging and informative but choosing to make Hoult the face of Tolkien too early on completely destroys the emotional impact because the visual creates too much dissonance.

(From L-R): Nicholas Hoult, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson and Tom Glynn-Carney in the film TOLKIEN. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
(From L-R): Nicholas Hoult, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson and Tom Glynn-Carney in the film TOLKIEN. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

This is most notably in the relationship development between Hoult and Laura Donnelly who portrays Mabel his friend, girlfriend and ultimately his wife. Hoult and Donnelly make a beautiful couple and watching them on screen is compelling and dynamic. But, their relationship progression doesn’t flow naturally because the emotions on display don’t match the emotional development of the character for the majority of their screen time. Neither is age appropriate for the majority of the film so the believability of their actions (and reactions gets severely undermined). Again, these are missteps that pull you out of the film experience and once out, it becomes that much more difficult to overlook how often this narrative shoves events and encounters into a framework that calls to mind some aspect of Lord of the Rings with little rhyme or reason. The cinematography makes it a great viewing experience but despite looking period authentic the actors frequently aren’t doing more than playing dress up.

Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins in the film TOLKIEN. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins in the film TOLKIEN. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

This film spends all its time trying to map Tolkien’s life against what ultimately evolves into the tales in The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and the rest his works sacrificing the actually impactful and formative experiences and relationships that shaped him into the man capable of writing those stories. All the building blocks of a biopic are here. The cast is solid, the locations picturesque or intriguing, the time period in his life is best suited to storytelling.

Major Misses:

Tolkien and Mabel: Mabel is presented as a pragmatic young girl who grows into a strong-willed woman more than Tolkien’s match. She was more than some paper-thin “muse” but you wouldn’t know it based on how shes used in this film. Tolkien sets up a compelling dynamic between the two then flinches when it comes to really explore the emotions and obstacles in their relationships. His interactions on screen hit to how heavily she influenced not only his feelings but his fundamental way of thinking. But for some reason, despite having an actress capable of carrying such complicated emotional baggage, Karukoski punts. It’s disappointing because just when it looks like the story will dig in and give Mabel her due it turns away from digging into the really complicated aspects of their courtship and retro-fits her as merely “his muse.” It lessens the passion, it dulls the painful, and ends up feeling extremely predictable.

Lily Collins in the film TOLKIEN. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Lily Collins in the film TOLKIEN. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Geoffrey Smith: Geoffery (Anthony Boyle) clearly plays a significant part in helping Tolkien stay the course at important junctures of his life. He’s also obviously in love with Tolkien. One of the most moving speeches in the film is downplayed due to the poorly developed relationships between Tolkien and his band of misfit friends known as the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. The film chooses to gloss over much of their relationship with montages set to music showing them gathered and sharing with one another. The story, however, hardly explores the connections between Tolkien and each of his friends (individually or collectively) with any depth. This failure, while the most egregious in terms of things, in only one of many places where this film fall short of the mark through no fault of the actors.

Nicholas Hoult and Anthony Boyle in the film TOLKIEN. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Nicholas Hoult and Anthony Boyle in the film TOLKIEN. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

High Point:

Watching Tolkien’s college years is the most engaging part of the film, partly because Hoult finally fits the character’s age and it’s here that his love of language is on display. Seeing how his college career is almost derailed and then saved by the happenstance makes for the most thorough use of fact blended with humorous and visually interesting storytelling bar none.  You don’t get much in the way of connecting it to his future but it does an excellent job laying the groundwork for understanding his fascination and facility with languages and the life lessons he learns during this time period.

Derek Jacobi and Nicholas Hoult in the film TOLKIEN.
Derek Jacobi and Nicholas Hoult in the film TOLKIEN.

I have pretty high standards when it comes to period pieces and costume dramas particularly when they purport to address true events. So, I went into Tolkien cautiously hopeful. The end product, however, fails to live up to the promise of the film’s many parts. Tolkien says it’s focused on J.R.R. Tolkien’s backstory. But, in reality, the story heavy-handedly molds events in Tolkien’s formative years draw connections to recognizable moments in his written work. While that makes for a visually engaging blend of the factual and the fantastical but does very little to truly delve into the man’s actual influences and life. That means as a biopic, it doesn’t even come close to hitting the mark.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5


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