Friday Film Review - "Tolkien"

May 24, 2019

A new film looks at the life of the man who would go on to write “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.”

Finnish director Dome Karukoski, most recently known for his 2017 biopic, Tom of Finland, is back with a new one, Tolkien, a look at author J.R.R. Tolkien’s life.

 

The film basically has two parts. The first part and bulk of the film, opens with Tolkien in the trenches during World War I. He is suffering from trench fever and is determined to find his childhood friend Geoffrey. Realizing what is going on, Sam, his aide, decides he can’t stop him, so he goes along to protect him. As this part of Tolkien’s life unfolds there are flashbacks to his childhood and young adult years. During these flashbacks, the viewer is introduced to his three best friends, and the woman who would become his wife. The second part of the film picks up with his life after the war.

 

Director Karukoski has all the right elements for a good film and he capably brings them all together in a story that is interesting, emotionally engaging and moves seamlessly from start to end. He is the first to admit that not everything in the movie is factual, but explains that in a biopic, time must be narrowed, and events condensed, not allowing for everything to unfold accurately. He is trying to tell a story and needs it to be engaging and self-propelling, so he aims for the overall emotional accuracy as opposed to the straight facts.

 

While the screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, is well crafted and does provide a fairly accurate account of Tolkien’s life, there are important aspects that have been omitted. The primary one being the influence of his Catholicism on his writing. His religion is a part of the film during his childhood, but it is his religious beliefs that are considered to have had the greatest impact on his writing. An argument might be made that this is too important a fact to have been glossed over.

 

Cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannessen has created a dichotomy of visions from the lushness of open British countryside, to the beauty of old libraries to the horror and devastation of World War I. Perhaps the most compelling of these visions were the still tableaux that featured only Tolkien and his aide. These scenes at first are about the interaction between these two characters with the surroundings just a subtle backdrop, but as the viewer looks past the actors, an incredibly disturbing scene comes into focus. This is a case of less being so much more.

 

Composer Thomas Newman, as usual, has created a soundtrack that takes a strong film and makes it stronger without demanding attention. The music is subtle but stirring, rising and falling with the emotions of the story and adding dimension to the work as a whole.

 

The cast is also quite strong. Nickolas Hoult and Lily Collins as the adult Tolkien and Edith Bratt have a lovely chemistry between them as do Hoult and the three actors portraying Tolkien’s life-long friends. My personal favorite is Derek Jacoby, who portrays Joseph Wright, one of Tolkien’s tutors at Oxford. Even in his small role, he shines and leaves an impression.

 

Other than one of Tolkien’s great-grandsons having a small part, the family has not seen the film, had nothing to do with its making and has not endorsed it. This seems to be more of a general “Leave us alone” statement to all trying to make contact, rather than a comment about this specific project.

 

 

Tolkien is an enjoyable 1 hour and 52 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sequences of war violence. Please be advised, some of the war scenes may be too graphic for more sensitive viewers.