If you’re looking for a movie that details how The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were written, Tolkien isn’t it. That’s not to say the movie is bad. On the contrary, this is a thoughtful biopic with solid performances and intriguing insight into J. R. R. Tolkien’s early years. We only see the seeds of Middle-earth being planted in Tolkien’s head, however. Since the Lord of the Rings is such a cultural phenomenon, it’s a tad disappointing that Tolkien doesn’t delve deeper into the fantastical world the author created. Being such a fascinating figure, though, Tolkien’s life story was still compelling long before Bilbo Baggins entered the equation.
Nicholas Hoult carries much of the film as Tolkien, who not only has a knack for crafting stories, but entire worlds and languages. Although Tolkien loses his mother at a young age, he finds a surrogate family in three of his classmates. Anthony Boyle’s Geoffrey, Tom Glynn-Carney’s Christopher, and Patrick Gibson’s Robert are the Sam, Merry, and Pippin to Tolkien’s Frodo. Although Tolkien gets off to a rocky start with them, it isn’t long until they form an unbreakable fellowship. As was the case with Stand by Me, the rapport these four share gives the film a beating heat that demonstrates just how powerful and magical friendship can be.
His trio of friends aren’t the only influential people in Tolkien’s life. He also falls head over heels for Lily Collins’ Edith Bratt, who would go on to become Tolkien’s wife and muse. Although Bratt inspired the character of Lúthien Tinúviel, her relationship with Tolkien has more in common Aragorn and Arwen. Kept under the watchful eye of his guardian Father Morgan (Colm Meaney), Tolkien is forbidden from seeing Bratt in order to focus on his studies. While their romance is forbidden, Tolkien would walk to Mordor and back again to get his happily ever after with Bratt.
Another wedge is created between Tolkien and his one true love when World War I hits. The wartime scenes do an authentic job at capturing the gritty realism Tolkien and other soldiers likely experienced on the battlefield. At the same time, the filmmakers integrate a fantasy element into the combat. Surrounded by unspeakable atrocities, Tolkien begins to see the world as if he were Frodo Baggins while wearing the One Ring. This is the most visually interesting segment of Dome Karukoski’s film, giving us a glimpse of the biopic that we could’ve gotten had it taken a more creative approach.
While Tolkien has a clear understanding of its subject, the film doesn’t trigger the imagination as one would desire. Fans of Tolkien’s work will likely want to see more of the real world blended in with fantasy imagery. Maybe there was a copyright issue since the Middle-earth movies are under the Warner Bros. umbrella and this film was developed by Fox Searchlight and Chernin Entertainment while Disney stepped in to distribute at the last second. With a director like Marc Forster behind the camera, this might’ve been another Finding Neverland. As a straight-forward biopic, however, Tolkien is none-the-less an involving story, even if it could’ve journeyed farther.