Fox Searchlight Pictures/112 min.
Coming on the fleeting heels of a certain TV fantasy adaptation for the ages, Tolkien, directed by Dome Karukoski and starring Nicholas Hoult as the titular character, is the type of film that, while I certainly like, stops just short of being something I can love.
Following the misadventures of the writer from his younger years through his twenties, it’s a biopic that focuses on the influence of Tolkien’s close relations on him as a person and to some extent as a writer. The shadow of his Lord of the Rings looms over the entire film, but strangely, it’s never more than alluded to, both visually and verbally.
The film starts off strong enough. Beginning Tolkien as a young boy uprooted from his friends after his father’s death. Viewers are then taken through various introductions to people who will become Tolkien’s primary friends into adulthood. There’s his future wife Edith Bratt, and his friends Geoffrey, Robert, and Christopher. There’s definitely a sense to each of the characters, and enough time is given to Tolkien’s relationship to each that, when it comes time to pull the heartstrings on viewers’ ability to care about them, the setup turns into a payoff, even if it stumbles along the way.
The thing that sticks out the most to me, in a positive light, is the filmmaking. Both director Dome Karukoski and cinematographer Lasse Frank are adept at crafting clear, excellently lit shots. What I admire the most though is the stark contrast between the two distinct settings depicted in the film.
It should be common knowledge to Tolkien fans that he served in World War I. It should also be common knowledge that he detested allegory in all its makings, and that he rejected the notion that his books were about his experiences, but I’ll get into what the film makes of that later. Visually, the depiction of Tolkien’s experience, compacted in the film to show a bit of the Battle of the Somme, is breathtaking. The director and DP trade the sunshine-clarity of Tolkien’s time in England for a still clear but drab-gray and shaky battlefield. Although viewers are only dropped into this sequence bit by bit, it being more an interruption to the main story of Tolkien and his friends, it’s the one that sticks out the most, because of the searing emotional intensity of it all.
I don’t want to go too in-depth on the details of the sequence, but there is a part of it that evokes the best type of symbolism and visual communication that a film like this could achieve. The scene finds Tolkien resting at the edge of a trench, away from the battle, but the area he rests in is surrounded by the dead bodies of his comrades-in-arms. Formed in piles ten bodies deep, their blood seeps into a pool in the shape of a ring.
The symbolism of this hit me much later, however, because even though that image is so strong, it is clouded by cliché character interactions (there is a scene between Tolkien and Edith that, while earned, is something straight out of romantic comedy) and clunky, in-your-face imagery that never achieves the subtle meaning of that prior shot.
What I find confusing about Tolkien is its focus. The shadow of Lord of the Rings looms large over this, and it is the flitting references to it that stick out to me the most as a sign of this film’s conflict with itself. Although I get a sense of Tolkien’s friends and what they mean to him, I don’t think I get a sense of who he is as a person. He seems to struggle, even though his family had enough money to live a colonial life in South Africa, not to mention how he also is able to study at Oxford. He’s earnest about learning languages, and wants to create his own, even though the references to this language don’t go beyond pictures on his dorm room wall.
So it is left to that amazing World War I sequence for the visuals to play out their hand, and how clunky it ends up being. The aforementioned shadow of Lord of the Rings plays out literally, with shadows of the Black Riders, Sauron, and even the dragon Smaug appearing as puffs of poison gas and fire from a flamethrower. These images are all well and good, but I don’t know whether this is meant for Tolkien’s or the audience’s vision.
Diehard Tolkien fans will probably dig most of this. Film nerds not so much. But it is a competently made picture, if feeling incomplete in some aspects.