Directed by Dome Karukoski
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney
One does not simply walk into Mordor, nor does one simply sit down and pen the most important books in the high fantasy canon. “Tolkien,” a stately and refined production from Finnish director Dome Karukoski, takes us from John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s first steps to his first line of prose: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” But there’s some jumps in time going there and back again.
“Tolkien” flashes between John Ronald’s years at school and the trauma of fighting in World War I. Nicholas Hoult plays the young Tolkien as kind, bright and somewhat shy. His mother, who instills in him a love of storytelling, leaves him orphaned and in a well-heeled group home under the strict eye of a priest played by Colm Meany. Here he is smitten with Edith (Lily Collins) whom he woos with his fabricated languages.
It’s at school, however, where Tolkien finds his true love: learning. He starts chumming around with a crew of tony British boys, where they discuss poetry and philosophy and all sorts of high-minded stuff. It’s a bit absurd, but it’s actually what sets “Tolkien” (and, no doubt, what set the actual Tolkien) apart.
Today the world of winged beasts, swords and spells is extremely popular. Just look at social media on Sunday nights when “Game of Thrones” is on. But for decades, the escapades of Middle Earth were the realm of nerds and squares. This movie is, more than anything else, an indoor film. It studies hard, gets good grades and follows the rules.
Indeed, Tolkien’s earliest struggles against his guardian (and, by extension, the Church) come when he wants to take Edith out on dates before he’s finished his studies. When was the last time you saw a movie so chaste?
Things get more gruesome at the Battle of the Somme, and it’s here where “Tolkien” leans into its gimmick. Throughout the movie we catch glimpses of characters who are meant to foreshadow those from “Lord of the Rings.” Derek Jacobi is the Oxford philologist meant to inspire Gandalf. His assembled tea house mates are the Fellowship of the Ring. And the poisonous gas wafting through the trenches are the Nazgûl, the black riders of death.
“Tolkien” may be light, and no one really asked for another writer biopic, but for hardcore fans it’s as welcome as second breakfast.