It should not surprise anyone that after the wild success of The Lord of the Rings and its various spin-offs and franchises, the creator of Middle-Earth would get his own biopic. Tolkien, the biopic of this epic series' creator, sadly is more interested in doing shout-outs to Tolkien's work than in diving into the man himself.
With the overarching story of his time in the trenches of World War I, Tolkien hops between the horrors of the war and his early life and college years. We spend some time in his childhood before he and his brother became orphans, then when they became boarders while the Tolkien brothers go school.
Here Ronald (Nicholas Hoult) meets some of the most important people in his life. There is Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a quietly passionate woman with whom Ronald falls madly in love. There is a hitch though: Edith is not Catholic, which for Tolkien's legal guardian Father Francis (Colm Meaney) is a bridge too far.
Then there are three fellow students who like 'Tollers', have a passion for art, language and literature. There's the Headmaster's son, Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), who loves to paint. There's the composer Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney) and poet Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle). They form their own 'dead poets' society' and even the separation between two going to Oxford and two going to Cambridge does not separate them.
Tolkien has given up Edith to both their regrets, but true love cannot be denied. Neither can Tolkien's gift for language, where he eventually finds himself under the mentorship of Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi). Then comes the First World War, where not everyone will survive.
Tolkien ends with Ronald and Edith united at last, and the beginning of a cute children's story that was to change fantasy literature forever.
Tolkien can best be described as 'respectable', which is a terrible thing to be when covering what I imagine was a more complicated and complex life and work as that of the subject. There is a stateliness that makes the film sluggish, boring and even a bit confusing.
We are led to think that the 'tea club' Tolkien and the others formed brought about great works and inspiration, but we never really see them connect with each other in a way that shows they prodded the others' work. This is not The Inklings: Junior Chapter. This 'fellowship' talked a lot about their love of language and art but they as individuals never stood out. I more often than not forgot who was whom.
A major part of Tolkien involves J.R.R. Tolkien searching the trenches for Geoffrey, but nothing in Tolkien suggested Geoffrey was particularly closer to Tolkien than the others. As such, why would he search for Geoffrey than for Christopher or Robert? Even more curious was that, intentional or not, there is a vague suggestion that Geoffrey, despite the surprisingly chaste manner they have towards college girls, is in love with Tollers: a longing glance, a touch of the arm.
You can see the film again and again trying for something and failing every time. You see this in the faux-fellowship. You see this in what is meant to be a romantic lunch between Tolkien and Edith. Despite everyone's best efforts, it comes across as stilted, forced and unreal.
It's curious that Tolkien is a weak movie with good acting, or at least as good an acting as David Gleeson & Stephen Beresford's script and Dome Karukoski's directing allows. Hoult has a wonderfully expressive manner and works his best to make Tolkien a complicated character. You can see him try again and again against weak material. Collins similarly attempted to make Edith more strong and less the girl who lovingly looks at her man.
Credit should also be given to the young actors playing the junior versions of Tolkien, Smith, Gilson and Wiseman (Harry Gilby, Adam Bregman, Albie Marber and Ty Tennant respectively). It's not their fault they were essentially asked to do Dead Poets Society: British Edition. Fortunately, none of them are old enough to have seen it when it came out so they may not have had the callbacks Tolkien saddled them with.
The fact that Tolkien's batman is named 'Sam' does not help matters.
Even Thomas Newman's score seemed dead-set on echoing Howard Shore's massive Lord of the Rings score.
Perhaps the oddest element in Tolkien was how it never touched on one of the most important elements of his life: his faith. Tolkien was a devout Catholic with his views shaping every element of his life and works. We could have seen internal struggles between his Catholicism and his love for Edith, but that was portrayed more as a petty inconvenience in Tolkien than a genuine crisis of conscience. Why Tolkien opted to downplay one of the defining forces in Tolkien's life we may never learn.
Tolkien was respectable but very hodgepodge in manner. Jumbled, listless, and a bit hollow, it may make for mild diversion but it is not the biopic that this literary figure merits.