This enjoyable enough biopic concerning much of the life of ‘high fantasy’ author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, JRR to his fans, nevertheless falls short of greatness, despite some heartfelt work from stars Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins
An American production shot in the UK by Finnish director Dome Karukoski (his first film in English), this follows Tolkien’s life up to his later 30s and then mostly drops off because, as is typically the case with filmic studies of writers, he then spent a big, uncinematic chunk of the rest of his years penning The Hobbit, The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and the ‘lost’ The Silmarillion.
We open with Hoult’s Tolkien (or ‘John’ or ‘Ronald’ or ‘John Ronald’) in the trenches at The Somme in 1918, freezing, terrified, almost meeting his end and imagining knights duelling in the rather studio-looking battlefield. His anguish and near-delirium causes the standard flood of flashbacks, and we cut to Birmingham and the home he (here played by Harry Gilby) shared with his widowed mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) and younger brother Hilary (Guillermo Bedward).
Mabel speaks of “impecunious circumstances”, saying that it’s like the hard-up family is in a novel, while friendship and later guardianship is provided by kindly Father Morgan (Colm Meaney, a nice choice). And both these adults instill a love of reading and storytelling: Mabel turns on a magic lantern and acts out (and hams up) a self-created tale, and Morgan tries to cheer the grieving boys up after her sudden death by pretending they need to fight child-munching monsters.
When Tolkien is shipped off to school, an unusual twist develops when he’s forced to befriend the bully who belts the crap out of him on the rugby field, and this serves as a way into a group of chums that get up to of-the-time English mischief before World War 1. He also meets another foster child, Edith Bratt, who grows up to be played by Lily, whom the adult JRR naturally falls for hard.
Back in wartime, as Tolkien’s condition worsens, he begins to hallucinate a series of pretty obvious visions that serve as references to Lord Of The Rings and beyond, well before he dreamt any of that stuff up. Orcs are seen attacking soldiers, one shot seems to show Smaug the dragon’s evil eye, and finally we get a glimpse of what’s surely meant to be the fearsome Balrog, all of which are symptoms of the ‘trench fever’ that almost carries him off.
One of those movies that should work handsomely but somehow doesn’t, quite, this is still worth it for LOTR devotees and diehards who’ll pick all the in-jokes and hobbit-ish details and tearfully swoon over the timeless love between John and Edith.
And be much moved by the F word. You know the one…
Tolkien (M) is in cinemas now