Tolkien: A Basic Biopic With Little Magic
Finnish film director Dome Karukoski (considered to be one of Finland's most successful film directors) takes on the story of beloved author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (J. R. R. Tolkien) in the biographical drama, Tolkien. The film captures the period milieu, but it lacks the emotional resonance and imagination necessary to do the subject matter justice.
Explore the formative years of the orphaned author J. R. R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school. Their brotherhood strengthens as they grow up, and whether love and loss together, including Tolkien’s tumultuous courtship of his beloved Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), until the outbreak of the First World War which threatens to tear their “fellowship” apart. All of these experiences would later inspire Tolkien to write his famous Middle-Earth novels.
If there’s one thing a story about an extraordinary and prolific writer should not be, it’s ordinary, and Tolkien falls into that trap almost immediately. In many respects, it’s just downright boring. With the exception of a handful of scenes — a cafe date between Tolkien and Edith Bratt and a heartbreaking conversation with the mother of one Tolkien’s best friends being the highlights that immediately come to mind — the film is largely placid and static.
It fails to set up the proper emotional connection to the characters, which is necessary to make the hero’s journey resonate with the viewer. There’s really no ingenuity to its execution, and aside from a few fleeting moments of shoehorned fantasy, there’s no genuine magical aspects either. Also, for a author so concerned with language, its phonology, pragmatics, semantics, and syntax, the film barely captures any of the lyricism or poetics that Tolkien is known for.
Not being a particular fan of Tolkien’s writing — my appreciation only goes so far as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (extended versions, of course) — and not knowing anything about Tolkien’s personal life, I thought I would learn something new. Unfortunately, there’s very little it had to offer in that regard that couldn’t been ascertained from Tolkien’s Wikipedia page. I can imagine from the diehard fan’s aspect, that it brings absolutely nothing new to the table that isn’t otherwise known in some capacity.
I suppose, I should also point out that the film didn’t receive a blessing from Tolkien’s estate. In fact, they did the exact opposite, issuing a statement objecting the film. Although, it should also be noted that Tolkien’s estate had not seen the film before issuing this statement. It would seem that the estates frustration is with how pop culture has swarmed Tolkien’s work, sucking off any meat and leaving behind only dry and brittle bones. Christopher Tolkien, J. R. R.’s sone and the official executor of his estate, even vehemently voiced his opinion on the matter back in 2012 when speaking with Le Monde: “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of our time. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.”
So, after getting a lot wrong, what does the film get right? Well, the period aspects are on point, as are the costumes and set design. The cinematography from Lasse Frank Johannessen is very nicely done; the shots of the countryside, in particular, are very gorgeous. The acting is fine and Karukoski’s direction is competent, but both are lacking in standout quality.
Really, it all boils down to the writing. It’s not awful, but it’s not nuanced or good, either. At it’s best, it’s mediocre, and at it’s absolute worst, it sort of diminishes the creativity and innovation of its subject by sticking so closely to the surface.
Recommendation: Whether you’re a Tolkien diehard or uninitiated to his work, it’s best to wait until streaming or VOD; although, if you’re a fan of Tolkien’s writing, you may just want to pretend this doesn’t exist.
Rating: 2 rings outta 5.
What do you think? Was Tolkien uninspired, or did it do the beloved author justice? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!