Two out of four stars
Without J.R.R. Tolkien, played in this film by Nicholas Hoult, there would be no “Harry Potter” or “Game of Thrones” and quite possibly the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Bridging the gap between Jules Verne, Jonathan Swift and Mary Shelley to the late 20th century boom of fantasy adventure fiction, Tolkien wrote only a handful of novels, but they are among the most important and influential of their kind.
The latest effort from obscure Cyprus-born Finnish director Dome Karukoski (“Tom of Finland”), “Tolkien” (pronounced toll-KEEN) is a frustratingly incomplete biographical drama which nonetheless should be required viewing for those already familiar with the author’s written works. Those who only know of the Tolkien brand because of the two blockbuster movie trilogies from the early 2000s and 2010s will likely be quite disappointed by the relative lack of action and/or fantasy found in Karukoski’s film.
Working with a screenplay by David Gleeson (“Cowboys and Angels”) and Stephen Beresford (“Pride”), Karukoski gets 2/3 of this right. Because of the death of his father and his mother’s inability to support he and his brother, Tolkien was sent to live with his maternal grandparents, who were close with Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney), a Catholic priest who lived in Birmingham. This led to Tolkien attending an exclusive prep school, where he impressed the hard-to-please English professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) and three spoiled but relatively hip classmates.
It is at this same time Tolkien meets Edith (Lily Collins, daughter of Phil Collins), a comely and erudite young lady who steals his heart (and he hers), and this is where the film hits its relative zenith. Tolkien and Edith share great banter; she challenges him and he retorts with great quips, and all is right within their world.
The same type of situation ensues with Tolkien’s mates, who form a quasi “Dead Poets Society” alliance which lays the groundwork for “The Lord of the Rings.” They start on the outs yet are able to find common ground, and it’s all well and good — but from a dramatic perspective, it falls short.
The filmmakers make their biggest mistake with the rest of the film when presenting Tolkien as a soldier in World War I. Broken up into fractured flashbacks, the scenes recall “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Paths of Glory” and 2017’s criminally overlooked “Journey’s End.” Those 30 or so minutes are dedicated to the “war is hell” battle scenes and offer little to nothing to the overall narrative.
Tolkien wanders about in dazed befuddlement while watching his countrymen and the enemy fall around him yet never reflects on the experience in any discernible way. It wouldn’t be going out on a limb to suggest Tolkien’s time in the army made its way to the pages of his Middle Earth world, and had the filmmakers made some sort of visual or emotional connection between the real and the imaginary, the film would have the desired bite it so desperately needs.
Getting his start as the title character minor in “About a Boy” from 2002, Hoult made the rare successful transition from child to adult roles and is best known to most audiences for his role in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and as the Hank McCoy/Beast character from the “X-Men” movies. Along the way, he appeared in age appropriate roles in a string of higher-brow/prestige films such as “A Single Man,” “Warm Bodies” and as the scene-stealing dandy in last year’s pitch-black comedy “The Favourite.”
There’s nothing particularly off with Hoult’s performance here, but there’s nothing truly memorable about it either. Playing a creative non-fictional character is an unenviable task, and the success or failure of it is less dependent on acting acumen and more on writing and direction. Since “Tolkien” is built on a shaky creative foundation, all that follows is equally iffy and unspectacular.
A far better film about the private life of a famous writer shows up later this month in the form of “All is True.” In this revealing and haunting production, director Kenneth Branagh stars as William Shakespeare in the twilight of his years trying to cope with retirement while bonding with a family he barely knows. It’s one of the finest efforts of 2019 thus far.