As a fan of The Lord of the Rings I was very keen to see the biopic about one of the most famous authors in fantasy literature, J. R. R. Tolkien. Directed by Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland, The Grump), Tolkien is a literary coming-of-age film that shines some light on the early life of this legendary author and explores the highlights and hardships he faced before creating and writing the history, lore, language and splendid adventures of Middle-earth. It turns out there’s more to the story than just The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
The story of Tolkien jumps back and forth between John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) in the trenches of World War I and his life from childhood to his eventual professorship at Oxford. While the scenes of him as a young army officer in WWI are not the primary focus of the film and do not make up a large duration of the plot, they are nonetheless quite powerful and moving as they reveal his strength of character and determination.
During the WWI sequences we find Tolkien sick with trench fever and in a very weakened state. He learns that his best friend since school, Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle) – who is also an army officer – hasn’t been heard from for some time. With the help of another soldier, and despite his frail condition, Tolkien is determined to track down his friend amongst the chaos of the war that surrounds him.
Away from the trenches of WWI, the main story starts with Tolkien as a young teenager (Harry Gilby) after his father has died. Not long after this tragedy, J. R. R. Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary (Guillermo Bedward) become orphans following the death of their mother, and the boys soon move into Mrs Faulkner’s (Pam Ferris) boarding house where Edith Bratt (Mimi Keene), a talented young pianist, is also staying. Tolkien transfers to King Edward’s School in Birmingham – where he initially struggles to fit in but soon becomes good friends with Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman), Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant) and Robert Gilson (Albie Marber).
With a shared interest in the arts ranging from poetry, art, music and writing the four boys form a club called the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) with the purpose of supporting each other’s artistic interests and to change the world. Lofty ambitions, indeed.
As these four friends get older they maintain their strong fellowship as well as their club. Life starts to get a little more complicated with the important milestone of applying for university and the demands of academic life after they get in. However, Tolkien finds his life particularly more complicated and difficult as he begins courting Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) who still lives at the boarding house with him. Their relationship is affecting his studies which in turn jeopardizes his chances of getting into Oxford. With Father Francis (Colm Meaney) – his guardian since the death of his mother – on his case about his education being more important than his relationship with Edith, Tolkien must make a difficult choice between love and his academic future.
While there aren’t any stand out performances in this film, I found the acting across the board to be very much on point. The young actors do a great job conveying rebellious young teenagers yearning to break away and express their art and independence in very formal surroundings. They support one another. They fight. They play. They form their own little club. And of course they get into trouble. Together they experience the highs and lows of being developing young men and this garners many laughs along the way.
With the older cast portraying the boys grown up into young men, you really get a sense these four artists have grown up together and have a level of comradery that is wonderful to see played out on screen. They still support each other. They still fight. They still play. And of course, they still get into trouble. If I was to learn the cast were good friends in real life I’d certainly believe it because you really get a sense of genuine friendship between these lads.
With minimal focus on Tolkien’s time in the military during WWI, this could have been a rather dull and boring movie about a British author/academic sitting in a room reading, writing and hanging out with his mates drinking tea while they talk about the arts. However, director Dome Karukoski has done a great job of telling this literary drama in an engaging way that never made me feel restless or bored despite its nearly two hours running time. Much of the focus is about Tolkien’s relationships with his friends and Edith instead of the creation of his most famous novels.
In fact, the time he spent writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is never really explored because we already know this. Instead, we’re able to focus on what we don’t know about him and the dramatic as well as the comedic moments that helped shape his character and possibly influence his writing.
What really drives this film isn’t that we’re learning about a famous author. This movie could have been about anybody really and still be touching because it’s underlying message is about more than just the need for friendship, but fellowship. It’s about art – and not just writing. It’s about the love of what can you achieve in life when you have the support and love of those with the same interests as you even if it does not necessarily fit in with society around you. This movie is inspiring because it’s about people who chase after their dreams and passions while making mistakes along the way but never giving up. And of course it’s about love. Not just between people but with the love of art and language.
Tolkien is a very heartfelt and engaging drama that sheds light on the life of one of the most popular – and least understood – fantasy authors of the 20th century. While the filmmakers make some obvious connections of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life experience to his writing, pay close attention and you’ll see snippets of less obvious images and sounds that also hint at what helped shaped his character and in turn the writing that would define his legacy. While there aren’t any epic fight sequences like those found in the pages of his written work (or films) solid performances, wonderful costumes and visually engaging English settings make this a compelling and interesting biographical experience.