wed 23/10/2019

Tolkien review - biopic charms but never wows | reviews, news & interviews

Tolkien review - biopic charms but never wows

Tolkien review - biopic charms but never wows

Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins offer relatively passionless romance

Hoult stars as the author's younger self

Finnish director Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien follows the same formula of many literary biopics, with a tick-box plot of loves, friendships and hardships that forged the writing career of one the 20th Century’s greatest fantasy writers.

We open at the Western Front, as a feverish Tolkien doggedly makes his way through the trenches with trusty companion, Sam (Craig Roberts) – a proto-Samwise Gamgee, complete with West Country accent - looking for his schoolfriend, Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle). Blasts of German flame-throwers transform into dragons, and caped cavalry officers shape-shift into Ringwraiths. It’s not subtle, with more than a whiff of the sort of allegory that Tolkien himself would have loathed – which is probably why the film was made without the cooperation of the family estate.

We then cut to the fledgling Hobbit author (Harry Gilby), moving from a smog-ridden Birmingham to his aunt’s home following his mother’s death. In the boarding house is his aunt’s piano-playing ward, Edith Bratt (Mimi Keene, latterly by Lily Collins), who catches Tolkien’s eye, despite protests (“she’s not even a Catholic!”) from Tolkien’s guardian, Father Morgan (Colm Meaney). Karukoski wants to make sure there is at least one woman at the centre of this very male film, with writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford tartly adding a line that Tolkien’s stories didn’t have enough women. The love stories aren’t relegated to the appendix here.

Slowly their love begins to blossom. In a date scene in an upmarket restaurant, Edith begs Tolkien to make up a story for her. Films rarely accurately render a writer’s imaginations, and here it will make you squirm in your seat.Nicholas Hoult and Derek Jacobi in TolkienLove story aside, the primary thrust of the film is the friendships Tolkien formed during his time at King Edward’s school. At first the precociously gifted Tolkien (latterly played by Nicholas Hoult) struggles to make friends, until he forms the Tea Club and Barrovian Society with a gaggle of chums. With the pomposity that befits public school youth, they discuss love, life and poetry in a local tea room.

Although Tolkien’s nostalgic muddy rugby matches and Latin lessons caters for the sentiments of home county audiences, Karukoski makes sure we never lose sight of the fact that more than half of these young boys would never see twenty-five when they went to war.

Tolkien’s encounters with linguist Prof Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) at Oxford (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Gandalf) set the stage for his literary masterpiece. You also won’t forget the sight of a drunken Tolkien stumbling around his college’s quad shouting in Elfish, waking up every don within ear-shot.

No doubt the 80-year literary legacy, along with Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies, will attract a certain type of fan to this depiction of the author’s life. But, if you love Tolkien, you’re better off reading his works. This gentle biopic is not without charm, if only they had left out the witless montages of Nazgûl charging the Western Front.

@JosephDAWalsh

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters

Advertising feature

★★★★★

A compulsive, involving, emotionally stirring evening – theatre’s answer to a page-turner.
The Observer, Kate Kellaway

 

Direct from a sold-out season at Kiln Theatre the five star, hit play, The Son, is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a strictly limited season.

 

★★★★★

This final part of Florian Zeller’s trilogy is the most powerful of all.
The Times, Ann Treneman

 

Written by the internationally acclaimed Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother), lauded by The Guardian as ‘the most exciting playwright of our time’, The Son is directed by the award-winning Michael Longhurst.

 

Book by 30 September and get tickets from £15*
with no booking fee.