Young writers are often told to write what they know. This has always seemed like peculiar advice to give to anyone seeking to write fantasy. After all, what can anyone really know about dragons and power of wizards? In a way, Tolkien answers that question through the lens of the life of its subject. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, better known as J.R.R. Tolkien — played here by Nicholas Hoult — defined modern fantasy with his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien tells the story of his life before he began work on Middle-earth, studying how the triumphs and tragedies he experienced informed the themes of his epic fantasy. In turn, those themes feed back into Tolkien as a celebration of fellowship, beauty, and purpose.
Warning: some spoilers for Tolkien follow.
David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford’s script begins with Tolkien in the trenches of World War I. Suffering from trench fever, Tolkien searches for a friend while seeing feverish visions in the fog of war and remembering his life up until that point. The story goes back as far as Tolkien’s move from the pastoral English countryside to the crowded city of Birmingham. The first act moves quickly, touching on how Tolkien’s mother fostered his love for stories and mythology before her death leaves him in the care of friendly priest (Colm Meaney) who helps him find a place to live while he attends a strict, upscale school. There, he meets friends who share of his love of art, forming the bonds that will inform his life and creations long after those he formed them with are gone.
Tolkien comes on a bit strong at first. Tolkien, the person, will always live in the shadow of his creations, which were hugely popular even before they were turned into Oscar-winning, blockbuster films. But early in the film, it feels as if there’s nothing in Tolkien’s life that doesn’t have a direct Middle-earth analog.
As the film continues, the pace evens out and those ties feel genuine and concise. In the forefront are Tolkien’s relationships. The brotherhood he forms with his friends at school acts as a clear antecedent the fellowship he’d write into Lord of the Rings, and his courtship of Edith Bratt, a fellow lodger played by Lily Collins, has shades of the epic love stories of mortals and elves that litter Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology. In the background are the works of art that would live in Tolkien’s mind, from the epic of Sigurd to The Ring Cycle. At times, the way the film foreshadows Tolkien’s great work is overwhelming, but for the most part, it’s engaging to examine how a life lived can birth a new creation.
Hoult plays Tolkien in a way that makes that foreshadowing seem natural. He’s intelligent and reserved, avoiding adding any kind of ostentatious tic as an acting flex in favor of imbuing Tolkien, as a character, with quiet dignity. But when he begins to talk about stories and ideas, specifically the ideas that will lead to Lord of the Rings, they spill out of him fully formed. They’re usually teased out by Bratt, his muse, but Hoult depicts Tolkien as if he was born with the story of Middle-earth inside of him, waiting there to be written into life.
Director Dome Karukoski and his team express this notion in the film’s visuals. The film’s palette is gilded, with golden objects and trimmings in almost every shot. When there’s not a man-made object, there’s natural light and beauty of the kind Tolkien so regretted leaving behind in his youth, the kind that the Shire is made of. During the way, the fever dreams of Middle-earth -- rendered beautifully in a way that feels woven well into the fabric of the film’s reality -- feel like something encroaching on Tolkien’s reality, a fantasy realm hidden at the edges of his vision.
The film’s strongest motif is light shining in the darkness. It’s present throughout, whether a sunbeam shining through a tree or the brightest star in the night star. It’s used a symbol for the power of art, of life, and it’s tied up beautifully by a post-war conversation between Tolkien and the mother of a fallen friend in which Tolkien insists that publishing a book of poetry is not feeble or pointless, but among the most important thing that can be done while living in shadow.
Tolkien ends with the author writing down the opening words of The Hobbit for the first time. It’s a film that revels in the same values that Tolkien’s own work does — love, friendship, journeys, quest. Tolkien himself learns over the course of the movie that the beauty of a thing is not innate, but in its meaning. In this way, Tolkien succeeds by adding new meaning to the author’s work.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Tolkien releases on theaters on May 10th.