“The book is not about anything but itself. It has no allegorical intentions, topical, moral, religious or political. It is not about modern wars.”
So said John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in a 1968 interview, pushing back at a growing fanbase that was all too eager to seek out topical, moral, religious, political and, most importantly, biographical interpretations of his wildly influential fantasy trilogy “The Lord of the Rings.” His complaint is a common one among artists with a devoted cult following, but frankly, there’s no reason critics and scholars should necessarily take him at his word. Dome Karukoski’s biopic “Tolkien,” which casts Nicholas Hoult as the young author, certainly doesn’t, looking to Tolkien’s heady days as a student and his hellish experiences in World War I to find hidden keys to his works.
Karukoski’s film has already been preemptively disavowed by the J.R.R. Tolkien estate, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But the film – stately, well-acted, and ultimately insubstantial – dilutes its considerable charms with hoary literary biopic conventions, and then risks strangling them entirely with its reductively literal takes on the vagaries of artistic inspiration.
Continually flashing forward to a fever-ridden adult Tolkien limping through the trenches at the Battle of the Somme in search of a missing friend, “Tolkien” otherwise proceeds through his childhood chronologically, hitting the broad bullet-points of his biography with general accuracy. Born in South Africa, the young Tolkien (played as a child by Harry Gilby) winds up flitting from place to place in the English Midlands after the death of his father, and he’s devastated when his mother (Laura Donnelly) is forced to move the family from the bucolic splendor of Shire-model Sarehole to the industrial sprawl of Birmingham. Soon after that, his mother dies too, and he’s left in the care of a priest (Colm Meaney), who helps earn him a spot at Birmingham’s prestigious King Edward’s School.
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Already the kind of kid who can recite Chaucer from memory, but woefully unversed in the rituals of upper class Englishmen, Tolkien has a difficult introduction to school, but gradually comes to form a close-knit, mischievous mini-literary circle with three other boys, their friendship cast as a sort of pre-War Dead Poets Society. (Played by Albie Marber, Ty Tennant and Adam Bregman as children and Patrick Gibson, Anthony Boyle and Tom Glynn-Carney as young adults, the three earn considerable screen time, but never develop into fully fleshed characters.)
Skipping ahead to the foursome in their late teens, the film finds Hoult’s Tolkien torn between his academic aspirations and his longtime infatuation with a fellow orphan named Edith (Lily Collins). On their early dates, the two throw sugarcubes at the society ladies in fancy tea houses – which, strangely enough, actually happened – and he attempts to impress her with a few phrases from a made-up language he’s been developing (though just what, exactly, could have driven this teenager’s precocious obsession with obscure and ancient dialects is left frustratingly underexplored). She’s largely unimpressed, asking him instead to tell her a story, “in whatever language you like.”
The film makes a promising return to this theme later on when Tolkien, at risk of flunking out of Oxford’s classics program, falls under the tutelage of the flamboyant philology professor Joseph Wright (a wonderfully freewheeling Derek Jacobi). Though he’s taken with the proto-Elvish tongue Tolkien has devised, the professor notes that for a fantasy language to have any soul, it needs to also have a fantasy culture and a fantasy history behind it. Whether biographically accurate or not, this is an interesting way to depict Tolkien’s gradual evolution into an appendix-obsessed storyteller – indeed, “Tolkien” is the rare film where watching a bookish undergrad change his major packs a bigger visceral thrill than scenes of battlefield carnage – and for a while at least, the film threatens to break free of convention.
Unfortunately, “Tolkien’s” other attempts to foreshadow his literary career display no comparable inventiveness, and once the war breaks out, they come fast and furious. One can forgive the unnatural emphasis Tolkien adds when describing his friend circle as a “fellowship,” and there’s a slight chuckle to be found in a character slagging off Wagner with “it shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a ring.” But when Tolkien’s trusty wartime sidekick reveals his name to be Sam, and cheapish horror-style effects start turning enemy combatants into Nazgul and flamethrowers into dragons, the film crosses a line into reductivist kitsch from which it can’t quite recover.