×

Film Review: Nicholas Hoult in ‘Tolkien’

Nicholas Hoult stars as a young J.R.R. Tolkien in this stately but reductive biopic.

With:
Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynn-Carney, Craig Roberts, Harry Gilby, Adam Bregman, Albie Marber, Ty Tennant, Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O'Reilly, Pam Ferris.

Rated PG-13  1 hour 51 minutes

“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.

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.

Film Review: Nicholas Hoult in 'Tolkien'

Reviewed at Fox Studios, Los Angeles, May 2, 2019.

Production: A Fox Searchlight Pictures presentation of a Chernin Entertainment production. Produced by Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, David Ready, Kris Thykier.

Crew: Directed by Dome Karukoski. Screenplay: David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford. Camera (color): Lasse Frank. Editor: Harri Ylonen. Music: Thomas Newman.

With: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynn-Carney, Craig Roberts, Harry Gilby, Adam Bregman, Albie Marber, Ty Tennant, Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O'Reilly, Pam Ferris.

More Film

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Russ Tamblyn's Career Had Legs After Childhood

    With an acting career that spans work for Cecil B. DeMille and Joseph Losey to Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, Russ Tamblyn’s creativity and longevity is proof that there’s life after child stardom. In Tamblyn’s case, there’s also been a bounty of juicy film and TV roles long after his legendary legs no longer kicked [...]

  • Olivia Wilde Booksmart Director

    Film News Roundup: Olivia Wilde to Direct Holiday Comedy for Universal

    In today’s film news roundup, Olivia Wilde has landed another directing gig following “Booksmart” and revenge thriller “Seaside” and “Woodstock: The Directors Cut” get August release dates. PROJECT LAUNCH Olivia Wilde will direct and produce an untitled holiday comedy project for Universal Pictures with her “Booksmart” partner Katie Silberman. More Reviews Film Review: ‘Above the [...]

  • Choas Charles Mansion and the CIA

    Amazon Studios Takes Film Rights to Manson-Centered Drama 'Chaos' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the grisly murders executed by the followers of Charles Manson, Amazon Studios has optioned film rights to a nonfiction title about a journalist who spent decades obsessively following the case. The studio will adapt “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties,” from [...]

  • Sword of Trust

    Marc Maron on 'Sword of Trust,' Lynn Shelton and Conspiracy Theories

    Marc Maron has interviewed everyone from Bruce Springsteen to President Obama, so he’s probably learned a few things about being a good interview. Of course, as he points out, he generally has over an hour to talk leisurely speak with his guests in his home and draw out stories beyond the public narrative; it’s a [...]

  • Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The

    Andrew Lincoln's ‘Walking Dead’ Movies to Be Released Only in Theaters

    The first planned movie centered on “The Walking Dead” character Rick Grimes will now run in theaters rather than on AMC. The announcement was made with a brief teaser video played at San Diego Comic-Con on Friday, with the video ending with the words “Only in Theaters.” The film will be distributed by Universal Pictures. [...]

  • Jennifer Beals The Last Tycoon

    Jennifer Beals Seeking SAG-AFTRA Board Seat as Matthew Modine Ally (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jennifer Beals is running for a SAG-AFTRA national board seat as a member of presidential candidate Matthew Modine’s progressive Membership First slate. Beals is best known for starring as Bette Porter on the Showtime series “The L Word” and for her lead role as Alex Owens in the 1983 hit “Flashdance.” She’s starred in the [...]

  • Alamo Drafthouse Opens New Downtown Los

    Alamo Drafthouse Storms into L.A. with New Location

    “Cinema is alive and well tonight!” Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League declared at the theatrical venue’s ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday night, where a gathering of 160 employees cheered and sliced into a strip of 35mm film in keeping with the company’s tradition. Despite dire predictions heralding the end of the theater-going experience, League was upbeat [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content