J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so you’re probably stoked for the movie version of his life, hoping it’ll be filled to bursting with adventure, brain-teasing fantasy and rock-’em-sock-’em action just like the books and the movies Peter Jackson directed into box-office and Oscar glory. Right?
Sorry, fans, here comes the buzzkill. Tolkien — pronounced toll-keen as the film takes great pains to inform us — is a bit of a stiff as cinema, rich in atmospherics but starved for the human spark that might uncover the man behind the myth. No one can blame the terrific Nicholas Hoult, who invests his considerable talent and searching energy into playing the young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Since his days as a child actor (About a Boy) through his mature work in A Single Man and his gonzo explosion in Mad Max: Fury Road, Hoult is up for anything. But his best instincts are muffled in stuffy period details that choke the life out of the film and his performance.
Director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland), working from a convoluted script by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, treads so carefully over the formative years of Tolkien, mostly referred to as Ronald, that you’d think the author’s estate was holding a gun to the filmmaker’s head. Nothing of the sort. The literary gatekeepers had long ago disavowed any connection to this Hollywood twaddle. With nothing to lose, you’d expect the project to leap into interpretive flights of fancy. Instead, it timidly settles for gilding the lily.
The script stodgily sketches in the biopic details. Tolkien, a penniless orphan, lives with his younger brother Hilary (James MacCallum) in an English boarding house, conforming to the will of his guardian, Father Francis (Colm Meaney). The priest does not like the goo-goo eyes his ward is exchanging with frisky fellow boarder and orphan Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), thinking it will hurt his chances to win a scholarship to Oxford. It’s in those hallowed halls that Tolkien cements his friendship with three students: Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney), Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson) and Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle, in the film’s best and most heartfelt performance after Hoult’s). The four buddies form a secret society called the T.C.B.S. It stands for the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, where they lads meet to stoke their intellectual curiosity and binge on, yes, tea.
It’s here that mention should be made of the film’s unfortunate framing device that toggles between Tolkien’s school days and his horrific time in the World War I trenches during the Battle of Sommes. An invasion of lice led to the future author contracting trench fever, a disease which sent him home to safety while several friends died in bloody combat.
All this would be fine if the film didn’t huff and puff so strenuously and wrong-headedly to make every incident call attention to itself as part of what would become Tolkien’s magnum opus about Middle Earth. Collect the Easter eggs as our hero takes Edith to the opera to hear Wagner’s Ring cycle about “one ring to rule them all.” He even charms his future wife Edith with an invented language that will morph into Elvish. At Oxford, philologist Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) cautions Tolkien that his invented words must have meaning as well as music. And it turns out that the T.C.B.S isn’t just a society of friends — it’s a “fellowship.” The most egregious aha moments take place in the trenches where soldiers in gas masks look like the Nazgûl and the shell-shocked Tolkien imagines incendiary bombs as the fire-breathing dragons of his soon-to-be classic legendarium. Oh, brother.
The references are relentless. Never mind that it’s insulting to think that the movie’s subject would tolerate seeing the essential moments of his life reduced to mere building blocks in a literary origin story. Those who advocate for Tolkien’s true genius will be uttering the same three words long before the credits roll: Make. It. Stop.