“Tolkien” might have been a better movie if it had been about a writer named J.R.R. Tolbert.
Had it been about an obscure young writer, rather than one of the most famous and influential writers of the 20th century, it might have been a familiar but effective historical drama about using the power of art to transcend unfortunate circumstances.
But Dore Karukoski’s film is weighed down by the legacy of its subject. It's slavishly reverent towards Tolkien and his work, even though it takes place in the years before he wrote “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings.” The film’s attempts to connect Tolkien’s young life to his future work are ham-handed and distracting.
The Tolkien in this movie is a shy, serious young man (Nicholas Hoult), orphaned as a boy, forever worried about having enough money to go to school or to measure up to the more wealthy boys around him. He retreats into his imagination, making pencil sketches of ominous trees and giant spiders, inventing whole new languages that only he understands.
Eventually, Tolkien forms a bond with three students at school (a “fellowship,” get it?) who also hope to use their artistic ambitions to change the world. He also has an on-again, off-again courtship with a young woman named Edith (Lily Collins), a piano prodigy who keeps her light under a bushel because of the limited options available to women in pre-World War I England.
She’s every bit as clever and imaginative as Tolkien. The scene where, over dinner, they conjure up a fantastic world together is the best in the film, showing how they spark each others’ imaginations as well as their emotions.
When World War I erupts, Tolkien and his friends are sent off to battle, with tragic results. A shell-shocked Tolkien, suffering from trench fever, sees visions of CGI dragons and Sauron on the battlefield at the Somme. Tolkien always insisted his wartime experiences didn’t influence his depictions of war in his fantasy novels, but the screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Bereseford makes the connection clear and direct.
“Tolkien” is a handsome historical drama, but it never fully commits to the story it's telling. It’s always got an eye towards the future, preoccupied with offering fan service to the Tolkien obsessives in the audience. There seems to be no other reason for Tolkien and Edith to go to a production of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” than to give the audience a wink.
Hoult conveys both the gentleness and the driven creativity of Tolkien, although he’s a strangely passive young man for much of the movie. Collins brings both spirit and sadness to Edith, and she’s greatly missed in the second half of the film, when Tolkien goes to Oxford and leaves her behind. There are some good supporting performances by Colm Meaney as the priest who becomes Tolkien’s guardian, and especially Derek Jacobi as an eccentric Oxford professor who nurtures Tolkien’s gift with languages.
Tolkien would have hated “Tolkien,” as he was opposed to the use of allegory in fiction. He wanted his richly detailed worlds to exist independently, without relying on echoes of our own world. Though well-meaning and affectionate, “Tolkien” ends up reinforcing Tolkien’s criticisms about the hazards of reducing literature to the biographical details of its author. If you want to really understand the man, as always, read the books.