A story’s source is not alone
The man who put his pen to page,
But every seed his life had sown
Within that man at every age,
His greatest fear, his cruelest pain,
His deepest love, his darkest stain:
These seeds were sown into his brain,
His heart and soul until they bore
A fruit we’d never seen before.
And so, in turn, that story’s sown
More seeds that yet remain unknown.
MPAA rating: PG-13
As a devoted fan of The Lord of the Rings, I was eagerly awaiting this biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien (played earnestly by Nicholas Hoult), hoping that it would provide some insight into the source of one of fiction’s greatest stories (and my favorite movie of all time). The acting is on point, the period setting is splendidly polished, the emotions are effectively conveyed, and yet Tolkien doesn’t do more than the minimum of what I expected.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with how Tolkien’s early life is recounted, and it actually enlightened me to quite a bit of his history. It covers his courtship of Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), his long-standing love of languages, and his friendships with three other boys who together formed the T.C.B.S., or Tea Club and Barrovian Society, a creative fraternity that clearly echoes the “Seize the day” mentality of Dead Poets Society. The film goes back and forth between these early years and his horrific time during the Battle of the Somme, where he suffers from trench fever and hallucinates fantasy figures on the battlefield.
It’s all a solid, respectable attempt at providing background for Tolkien the great author, but it also feels manufactured in how it tries to provide context for Tolkien’s works. Early scenes of his youth in bucolic Birmingham do well to remind viewers of the Shire without making it overly clear, but other references aren’t as subtle. (Though I agree with the statement from one of his friends about Wagner’s Ring Cycle that it shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring; it actually takes 9+ hours.) It’s only a matter of time before the T.C.B.S. is referred to as a “fellowship,” and the surreal hallucinations Tolkien has amidst the horrors of World War I serve no discernible purpose but as references to his fantasy and excuses to include some special effects. It also stumbles at times in the presentation of events, such as when Tolkien’s mother suddenly dies with no explanation at all.
I also would have liked more references to Tolkien’s Catholic faith and how it shaped his work, something which director Dome Karukoski supposedly filmed but removed due to test audience feedback. There are welcome touches, such as the inclusion of a crucifix in Tolkien’s battlefield visions, but the film definitely prefers its romantic side, as when Tolkien is told by his friend and guardian Father Francis (Colm Meaney) to stop seeing Edith until he was 21. This is true, but the film’s Tolkien later insists it was a mistake, while the real-life Tolkien said he didn’t regret the decision.
In its elegant presentation and clear fondness for its subject, Tolkien is a respectable, well-acted biopic that does most of what it sets out to do. Considering the exceptional man and story of its inspiration, though, one would hope it could have been a little more than that.
Best line: (Edith, on Tolkien’s regard for languages) “Things aren’t beautiful because of how they sound. They’re beautiful because of what they mean.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2019 S.G. Liput
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