When movies are made about real people—especially artist types—it’s always interesting to see what aspect of their lives the filmmakers choose to spotlight. Will the focus be on a singular event in the subject’s life? Or will the movie try to suggest in dramatic terms what inspired the subject’s work?
In the atmospheric Tolkien, a movie about the celebrated fantasy author who gave us The Hobbit and The Lord Of the Rings, these two approaches are the same thing. The movie begins in the horrific trenches of the Somme, in France, during World War I, a setting that keeps returning throughout the film. The devastation of warfare was certainly the most singular event in J. R. R. Tolkien’s life as a young man, but it also inspired him to create the epic battle between good and evil that occupies the Rings trilogy.
Directed by Dome Karukoski, from a script by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, Tolkien tries hard to elide the author’s experiences as a schoolboy, an Oxford student and a soldier into the larger themes of quests, courage and fellowship that would dominate his later work. The filmmakers are largely successful at this; their workmanlike approach doesn’t always create a lot of deep resonance, but it’s a satisfying look at the gestation of the creative process.
As Tolkien, a feverish young officer, stumbles through the mud, blood and corpses in the trench under German artillery fire, his backstory is told in flashbacks. Young John Ronald Tolkien (an affecting Harry Gilby) and his little brother are raised in “impecunious circumstances” by their lively mother (Laura Donnelly), who feeds them a steady diet of storybook myths and legends in which she acts out all the parts.
As a recently orphaned prep school lad, he can not only recite Chaucer from memory, he can pronounce Middle English correctly. (An early example of his lifelong affinity for languages, many of which he would invent for his books.) After some scrapes, he bonds with three other boys with arty leanings, who clown around, talk and dream at a comfy neighborhood tea shop worthy of the Hogwarts gang. They consider theirs more than a friendship; it’s an invincible alliance, a brotherhood. A fellowship.
Tolkien (now played by Nicholas Hoult) squeaks into Oxford on a scholarship, and continues an ardent friendship with Edith (Lily James), another orphan and live-in companion to Tolkien’s foster mother. He and Edith share a love of epics (when he can’t afford tickets to see a performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle, they sneak into the basement storeroom and lark about in old costumes as the music thunders down from the stage). Only to Edith and his stalwart mates does Tolkien confess his urge to write legends of his own. But all their dreams are interrupted by the outbreak of war.
This is not a portrait of the artist writing in a fever of inspiration. Instead, Tolkien is depicted as a man of very methodical, intersecting obsessions, writing stories and developing complex language systems for his own amusement. He also sketches almost constantly—fantasy landscapes, menacing figures emerging out of the shadows, dragons. (Tolkien himself provided watercolor paintings for the dust jackets and endpapers of many early editions of his work.) Years later, as an Oxford professor, he sits down to write the first page of The Hobbit in beautifully rendered, calligraphic script.
The director’s thoughtful approach may drag a little in the midsection, but his themes line up with Tolkien’s stated purpose to explore “the journeys we take to prove ourselves.” Tolkien’s journey through the hell of the Somme gives the movie its action, but his inner journey through the landscape of his imagination makes the trip worthwhile.
*** (out of four)
With Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meany, and Derek Jacobi. Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford. Directed by Dome Karukoski. Rated PG-13. 111 minutes.