Tolkien, directed by Dome Karukoski, is a sometimes touching if not familiar story of an outcast intellectual who finds friendship and love by always being himself. The fact that it happens to be about one of the most famous authors of all time feels like it was shoehorned into the story during a late draft script revision. Tolkien feels so limited by having to be about who J.R.R. Tolkien would become. Anytime we feel connected to his story of building comradery and companionship, the interludes of a fantasy feel like someone has forced an ad for a sword-and-sorcery mobile game in the middle of an episode of a charming, if not a little dull, Downton Abbey spin-off. Although Nicholas Holt’s fine performance and some surprisingly effective chemistry do often raise Tolkien above being just a middling biopic, the fantasy elements and some limited characterization result in a film that doesn’t quite complete the quest of capturing the writer’s life and the source of his inspiration.
Ronald Tolkien (played as a child by Henry Gilby) didn’t have a childhood filled with money or comfort, but it was filled with fantastical story spun by his mother, Mabel (Laura Donnelly), before he went to sleep. When his mother dies unexpectedly, he becomes the ward of Father Francis (Colm Meaney). Francis places Ronald into the custody of the stern Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris), who runs a boarding house for orphans. Ronald is sent to a prestigious school where his near-prodigal intellect (reciting Chaucer’s Middle English writing from memory while his classmates stumble through the archaic syllables) immediately makes him an outcast. After a rugby battle escalates, Ronald makes three friends who bond over their pursuit of knowledge and art. The group forms the Tea Club, Barrovian Society (T.C.B.S.), an intellectual group who spend equal time talking about their pursuit of education and their pursuit of girls. Only one girl pulls Ronald (played as a teen and adult by Nicholas Holt) away from his books, Edith Bratt (Lily Collins). Edith is also boarding at Mrs. Faulkner’s house, being given housing in exchange for her on-command piano performances. Father Francis attempts to dissuade Ronald from pursuing Edith, telling him that he needs to focus on his studies in order to get into university. Ronald believes that university is the only thing that can get him out a destitute future. As World War I looms ahead, Ronald must figure out which path would lead him to a life where he is free to be who he wants.
Holt’s performance is surprisingly and refreshingly reserved as it seeks to present Ronald as just a person, and not a means to an Oscar. His performance does very little in the way of big cathartic moments or stylized presentations of the mind of a genius, like other biopics such as A Beautiful Mind or Theory of Everything. Ronald’s gift of language is shown in short bursts that feel like true passionate displays and not just the film feeling it needs to remind us of his intelligence. Holt is also especially good whenever he shares a scene with Collins. Although Collins isn’t given much to work with as Edith (given only a scene or two to show who she really is as a person besides Ronald’s love interest), the two share some delightfully awkward courting scenes. Their blossoming romance feels natural and is given time to grow throughout the film.
The scenes that involve the T.C.B.S. are also decently entertaining because there is the occasional “intellectual guys being dudes” scene of mischief, moments where the story just allows them to talk with one another feels right out of Dead Poets Society. One scene in particular where a member comforts a distraught Ronald is incredibly touching in a way that feels refreshingly out-of-character for an otherwise stoic British period piece. The group’s members aren’t given much to do, though, besides show Ronald the importance of fellowship though. Tolkien wants us to see this group as the inspiration for the friendships presented in his later novels. In order for viewers to fully believe this, it would have really helped if these characters were given more to do besides being near and inspiring Ronald.
Tolkien is brought down any time when it seeks to show how Ronald’s future writing was inspired by his life events and those around him. The promotional materials stress that the film is about the mind that would conjure up tails of dragons, battle, and Hobbits. Stressing these elements will no doubt get more attention than saying it is about a linguistics enthusiast who has great friends and is in love with a girl. Any time Tolkien brings elements of fantasy into the story, it feels incredibly out of place and almost destroys the film. When the film intercuts Ronald’s child and young adulthood with his experiences suffering from trench fever during World War I, computer-generated creatures and knights on horseback are inserted into the fever dream-manipulated visions of battle. Dragons appear to set fire to soldiers, only to fade away to be soldiers armed with flamethrowers. Showing how the deaths of so many would lead to Tolkien’s work feels out-of-place and a little offensive (“Thank you, Unnamed British Soldier, screaming while burning to death! You probably inspired the Battle of Helm’s Deep!”) If the film were to cut these fantasy elements it might have been less marketable but would have been much more cohesive.
Furthermore, more scenes of Ronald’s childhood, building the connection to his mother and fantasy, would have helped Tolkien‘s pacing, as the film feels surprisingly rushed at 112 minutes. Building up the rest of the supporting cast might have helped solidify how they inspired Tolkien’s work. Unfortunately, any time we get immersed in who Tolkien was, the movie feels like it has to remind us who he would become.