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Film Review: Tolkien

Tolkien (2019)
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Directed by: Dome Karukoski
Written by: David Gleeson & Stephen Beresford
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney & Derek Jacobi

At the heart of Tolkien, there is a love story. It’s the driving force of the whole story, but it’s overlooked in the trailer, as if the producers decided that the war and fantasy element would be more of a draw for the crowds. Oddly, I feel if this element had been more emphasised in the marketing, they may have got a few more bums on seats for the opening weekend, but what do I know?

Tolkien, played by Nicholas Holt, follows the sad childhood of the acclaimed writer, as he and his brother are orphaned and under the watchful eye of the church, fielded out to a foster home, before eventually being shipped out to WW1. The story is told in flashback, as Tolkien, wounded and ill in the trenches, desperately looking for one of his childhood friends, slips in and out of consciousness. We see him attend school, after being home tutored by his mum, and meeting the three friends that stay with him through his formative years. This “fellowship” band together and become life long friends, while Tolkien meets Edith Bratt, another displaced child in the same foster home as he and his brother, and falls in love.

Now I don’t know much about Tolkien at all. I have never read his work, and I’m only familiar with him because of the movies, but it’s worth noting that this does not hinder watching this film in any way. I’m sure that there are many references, or Easter Eggs as we have to call them now, throughout the screenplay, but not knowing them didn’t stop me enjoying the film at all. Of course there are strong messages about brotherhood, facing your fears and journeys of discovery, and I suppose those are lessons that we can all learn from, but you don’t need to be a Tolkien enthusiast to go see this film.

The direction is fine, the period costumes and settings all look good, and the scenes in the trenches are as harrowing as they need to be for this type of film. There are moments where we see glimpses of the fantasy aspects that drive Tolkien’s books, and they are inserted at various points in the film with nice restraint. You never get to the point where the CGI effects bash you over the head, instead there are smoky glimpses and shadow clad figures, as opposed to in your face effects that might take the viewer out of the real drama on the screen.

All the leads are served well with the script, Holt channels his inner Cumberbatch, while Lily Collins, as love interest Edith, fleshes out her character well. The lads playing the younger version of the band of brothers are also very good, something that could easily have gone wrong, there’s nothing worse than annoying child actors chewing up the scenery, but the casting here all works making the first act quite engaging.

By the time we get to the final act, everything seems to be in place for JRR to become the writer we know he becomes, and this is essentially what the screenplay sets out to do. It plays out like a Marvel phase 1 movie, an origin story of sorts, but that’s perhaps a rather flippant way of looking at this. Unfortunately it seems that the estate of Tolkien wanted nothing to do with the production. Understandably, they are very protective of the name, and have in the past taken legal action over other productions.

Biopics often play hard and fast with the facts, Oscar winner Green Book suffered from similar problems, but Tolkien seems to have been made with the best of intent. The premise is solid, the characters likeable and engaging, and the love story between the leads, and the group of friends, is believable. If you have any interest in his work at all, you should pop along and see this – it’s an unexpected journey.