Director: Dome Karukoski
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi
Watch Tolkien online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / eir Vision Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Having already helmed Tom of Finland in 2017, Finnish director Dome Karukoski continues his penchant for biopics about creative people with Tolkien. With Nicholas Hoult in the title role, the film presents the trials and tribulations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life up to putting his first draft of The Hobbit to paper. These include his orphaning at a young age, a strong bond with a group of classmates at school, a burgeoning romance with his future wife, Edith (Lily Collins), and his experiences in the First World War.
Tolkien is a handsomely mounted production with an endearing pair of performances at its centre, but it never overcomes the problem at the core of David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford’s screenplay: the reductivism concerning the artistic process. Considering that Tolkien himself was a man who resisted allegorical readings of his work, particularly when it came to the influence of war on his output, there’s a degree of irony to this biopic presenting the most literal-minded interpretation of how The Hobbit – and parts of The Lord of the Rings – came to be.
The power of imagination is presented on-screen through a failure of imagination. Tolkien’s close friends at school are literally referred to as a ‘fellowship’; much is made of Edith’s elven qualities; and the horrors of the Battle of the Somme are depicted as explicitly influencing the inception of Middle-earth’s Mordor, Sauron, Smaug and other fiery terrors, with Tolkien hallucinating a flaming Balrog-like shape amid the mayhem.
The last of these is not the film’s only instance of one of the author’s memorable literary creations visualised as shaped by his experiences, but it’s the most questionable directorial choice in terms of sensitivity towards a real-life conflict. And while the film does still spend a lot of its runtime on the etymology that Tolkien actually studied, which did inform his prose, those brief flashes of an apparent greater understanding of what made the writer tick are diluted by the lazy equating of his novels’ narrative beats to parts of his life. To alter the meaning of another phrase, Tolkien the film, like many a clumsy literary biopic, would have benefitted from some separation of the art from the artist.