Too often, a biographical drama about the life of a famous author boils down to a rote depiction of literary influences. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s life story is perfectly fascinating in its own right: Orphaned at the age of 12, he grew up a star scholarship student with a passion for linguistics, fought in World War I (including the historically bloody Battle of the Somme), and survived to become a noted academic. But Tolkien, Dome Karukoski’s new film about the writer’s young life, exists only because Tolkien would go on to create the world of The Lord of the Rings. Thus its entire narrative purpose is to check off every detail in the budding author’s life that had some bearing on his work.
The film does all this to the exclusion of the work itself. Presumably because the act of sitting down and putting pen to paper is not that visually dynamic, Tolkien, which stars Nicholas Hoult in the title role, cuts off the action right before he starts work on his great novels. Instead, it devotes 111 minutes of molasses-slow storytelling to his youth, his war service, his romance with wife Edith Bratt (played by Lily Collins), and his bond with three school chums that was so close, one might even call it … a fellowship. Which Hoult, as Tolkien, does, practically right into the camera. This is a biopic so fearful that audiences won’t get the connections it’s drawing that it depicts a CGI dragon stalking the battlefields of the Somme. The result doesn’t rise above the insight of a Wikipedia page.
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.
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.