Tolkien: Middle-Brow, by David Bax
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume, if you’ve chosen to watch a movie called Tolkien about J.R.R. Tolkien, you’re probably forearmed with some awareness and appreciation of who the guy was. But director Dome Karukoski and screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford aren’t willing to take that risk, instead adopting the belt-and-suspenders approach. In the film’s early sections, the young Tolkien (Harry Gilby) is constantly being referred to as “Tolkien,” just so we won’t forget which character to pay attention to, I guess. Then, on his first day at school, bullies steal his book so he won’t be able to read aloud from Chaucer when called upon but–what’s this?!–it turns out he already knows it by heart. The movie can’t stop selling us on Tolkien long enough for us to actually learn anything about him.
Tolkien follows its subject starting with the death of his mother (Laura Donnelly) and his passage into the stewardship of a local priest, Father Francis (Colm Meaney), who uses his connections to get the relatively poor boy into a good school. Despite his lower standing, he soon wins friends who will become his chums throughout his school years up until the first World War separates them by a great distance and, in some cases, death. All the while, Tolkien (played for most of the runtime by Nicholas Hoult) is wooing Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), with whom he eventually begins a romance that burns all the brighter for Father Francis’ stern objections to it.
When they’re not at school, Tolkien and his pals spend most of their time drinking tea at a local shop and encouraging each other’s artistic ambitions. Tolkien is not subtle in making the connection from this crew and the silly name they give themselves (the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or TCBS, after the name of the tea shop) to the later fellowship Tolkien would famously invent in his fiction. That’s just one of a handful of moments in the film that might as well end with a voice saying, “And that’s where he got that idea!”
All of this is exasperating but, at least, it would be more so if it weren’t for the solid cast Karukoski has assembled. Collins has been waiting years now for the role that will elevate her to where she belongs; this isn’t it but it’s more evidence of her commanding skills. Hoult is easy to empathize with and veterans like Meaney and Derek Jacobi (as one of Tolkien’s professors) bring experience and gravitas. It should also be noted that the casting of young versions of Tolkien, Edith and the TCBS are laudable, both in terms of talent and resemblance.
Tolkien assumes you know the young man on screen went on to write famous novels. The more baffling choice is that it also assumes you know he went on to marry Edith. This determinism is not only dramatically unsatisfying, it also casts their relationship in problematic turns. We’re meant to believe him, I think, when he says he loves her but he repeatedly prioritizes his studies and writings. Tolkien could be an examination of how male privilege makes young love a different experience for the sexes but it’s not interested in that. Instead, he chooses his ambitions over human connection like a character in a Damien Chazelle movie but suffers none of the consequences they do. The only conclusion to be drawn is that Tolkien is a movie that is skeptical at best about the importance of love.
Tolkien is ultimately at its best when it forgets who its protagonist becomes. Somewhere underneath the superficial biopic is a story of a promising young student waylaid by the senseless horrors of war. With its depictions of World War I soldiers as terrified boys stomping around in puddles of blood and mud, waiting to be killed, Tolkien reaches a zenith as an anti-war film. But then, just like the slightly less odious Goodbye Christopher Robin, it suggests that all of it only made him a better writer.