Tolkien was raised in austere times, and he grew up in particularly strained circumstances because his mother, Mabel, died abruptly of diabetes at the age of 34 (his father died years earlier). Brought up in a strict religious environment by his mother’s friend Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney), a stern Catholic priest, Tolkien threw himself into his studies, showing particular aptitude for the classics, Old English, and creating his own fictional languages. Edith was another boarder at the foster home where he grew up; his best pals were schoolmates who would gather with him to drink tea, discuss poetry, and generally jape around as harmlessly as possible. Karukoski’s film cuts between these episodes from Tolkien’s younger days and his service in the Somme, where he searches for his friend Geoffrey (Anthony Boyle) on the battlefield with a helpful friend named Sam (Craig Roberts) in tow. Yes, Sam. Did you get it? Don’t worry—the film makes sure you will.
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If you’re not looking for much more than a relaxing couple of hours in the theater, Tolkien isn’t a bad bet; it mostly sustains an extremely sleepy mood. Unlike his other author performance, in the horrendous J. D. Salinger biopic Rebel in the Rye, Hoult is not straining to make Tolkien appear as a groundbreaking nonconformist destined to change culture forever. The naughtiest thing Tolkien does in the film is sneak backstage for an opera performance; the most popular beverage being swigged for most of the movie is tea. Karukoski, a Finnish director who made a small splash in 2017 with another biopic, called Tom of Finland (about a far more transgressive historical figure), shoots this part of Tolkien’s life with a sun-kissed, autumnal hue, giving each flashback a nostalgic haze that only slows down the action even more.
Every major moment in the movie reads as lazy box-checking. Besides the visions of dragons, a trip to see a Wagner opera (the composer’s Ring cycle was a major influence on The Lord of the Rings), and the mention of a great “fellowship” between Tolkien and his chums, there’s an extended sequence in which Tolkien and Edith discuss his love of the phrase cellar door, a linguistic flourish that Tolkien famously proclaimed was one of the most beautiful in the English language. Though Tolkien likely did not invent scholarly affection for the phrase, the film shoehorns it in anyway, trying to leave the most obvious possible trail of crumbs to the author’s beloved canon. The war material pulls no punches; the Somme was a cruel, horrifying moment in world history, and Karukoski depicts it bluntly. But everything that happens seems irritatingly in service of a punch line—the creation of The Lord of the Rings—that never comes.
Most baffling of all, the film overlooks the fascinating details of Tolkien’s later life—his comradeship with C. S. Lewis, his years teaching at Oxford University—in favor of bonds between Tolkien and his teenage friends that aren’t fully developed or deeply examined in the script. Karukoski might have told a powerful story about the legacy of World War I and the havoc it wreaked on a generation, killing young soldiers in the millions (indeed, Tolkien told that story himself, obliquely and thrillingly, through his novels). Or he might have taken a more sweeping epic scope befitting his subject. Instead, Tolkien does nothing more than lay out the basics of its hero’s life. It feels like a wasted opportunity.