The Real Lord of the Rings
A dreamy, modestly moving biopic on the creator of Lord of the RingsJ.R.R. Tolkien is, of course, best known for conjuring entire magical realms, populated with impossible characters and mythical quests and endless adventure. And while hobbits, precious rings and all-powerful wizards were the stuff of imagination, as it turns out some of his famous books’ other themes – bands of brothers, challenging quests, battles, death and destruction – were very real.
Nicholas Hoult plays John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who we meet as an orphaned schoolboy at King Edwards School in Birmingham. Here, he meets his own band of brothers – kindred spirits, mirrored in his books by Frodo and his friends – who look all set to enjoy lifelong friendship, before their cosy happiness is interrupted by the outbreak of World War I.
Tolkien is very earnest, respectful, sincere, emotive and… well, a bit dry
Tolkien is just the latest in a series of literary biopics to hit the big screen – just a few that come to mind include Goodbye Christopher Robin, Saving Mr Banks and Miss Potter – and it would be fair to say that these sorts of biopics aren’t always well-received by surviving relatives and friends of the subjects. That’s the case here, as the Tolkien estate have gone to great pains to distance themselves from this film, going so far as to say that they don’t “endorse its contents” in any way, shape or form. Just what it is that they so object to remains a bit of a mystery, because there’s nothing remotely scandalous or derogatory contained within Tolkien’s 112-minute run time.
In fact, as films go, Tolkien is very earnest, respectful, sincere, emotive and… well, a bit dry. In short, it’s got nothing on the epic action and high-stakes drama of the author’s own books or the blockbusters they later spawned.
The concept of this film is that Tolkien’s incredibly tough experiences as a young man shaped his writing and his characters. The concept is brought to the fore again and again as scenes of Tolkien’s upbringing and adolescent years are interspersed with glimpses of the magical world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings worlds.
Tolkien, for the most part, treads through the well-known tropes and plot points and conventions of a typical literary biopic but does weave elements of real emotion – heartbreak, longing, nostalgia, grief, wistfulness – into its by-the-numbers narrative. Hoult and Lily Collins (as Tolkien’s soulmate Edith Bratt) both put in winning performances, though the key theme of the film is that the real love of the author’s life was friendship (fellowship); we see him become one of the founding fathers of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society at school with his friends, and we watch this camaraderie develop through life, rather tragically into the trenches of WWI. Indeed, it is a shame that we don’t get to understand more of Edith and Tolkien’s relationship, or about Edith’s own experiences; this is very much a man’s world.
It’s got nothing on the epic action and high-stakes drama of the author’s own books or the blockbusters they later spawned
The film contains really rather harrowing and profound themes of loss and war, though some of its profundity and depth is tarnished by its keenness to cut war-torn battlefields with glimpses of dragons and magical monsters. What filmmaker Dome Karukoski and writers David Gleeson and Steven Beresford manage to convey are the peaks and troughs between Tolkien’s real-life and his imaginary-life – the screenplay clearly signposts the elements of growing up poor, being influenced by religion and a larger than life father-figure/Gandalf stand-in (Derek Jacobi’s Professor Wright) and struggling to survive a World War that influenced Tolkien’s writings. Complemented by some quite beautiful and almost ethereal camerawork, the film offers a nostalgic, reverent and wistful look at the makings of a man who influenced countless scores of teenagers, bookworms and film fans; though this isn’t the most ground-breaking, gripping or exciting film, it’s one Tolkien fans will cherish.
Those who loved the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films for their fiery battles, exciting quests, other-worldly elements and epic narrative turns won’t find any of that here – this is one for the fans of the fellowship, magic, mysticism and morals found in Tolkien’s works. Hard-core LOTR fans will likely enjoy a deeper look into the creator’s backstory, but there’s little else of interest here. A slow-paced, at times beautifully boring biopic, it’s hard to see why the Tolkien estate were so perturbed by the film – there’s really not much worth shouting about.
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