For “The Lord of the Rings” fans, Dome Karukoski’s “Tolkien” might work as a way of celebrating the brilliant author and fantasy creator. The script, understanding most people’s familiarity with “The Lord of the Rings,” expects you to pick up on which characters and moments are inspiring those found in the books and Peter Jackson’s award-winning trilogy. If you are unfamiliar, “Tolkien” works simply as an overbearing biopic and a nice little love story. The performances from Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins are admirable. The film struggles in the edit to find the most concise way to cover all the ground necessary to get us to the big moment where he begins writing about ‘Middle-earth.’
His childhood was anything but ideal; Ronald Tolkien (Hoult) grew up without a father, and after his mother passed he and his younger brother became foster children under the guardianship of Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney). Education was always important to Mrs. Tolkien and the imagination Ronald has is in part due to his mother’s vivid stories. Tolkien began to flourish at Oxford, thanks in part to three fellow students who create a pact to always champion their artistic abilities despite the suffocation of their parents. Ronald would meet the love of his life at his foster home, Edith Bratt (Collins), who changed his life forever. Like the rest of his peers, Tolkien enlists when World War I comes calling, an event that would forever shape his world view and greatly influence the stories he would go on to write.
For those of us who spent hours diving into the special features in the extended editions of “The Lord of the Rings” back in the early 2000’s, we know Tolkien always resisted attributing his ‘Middle Earth’ work to allegory. “Tolkien” embraces that notion completely and seeks to highlight the people in Tolkien’s life that inspired characters like Bilbo (his guardian the priest), Sam (his comrade on the battlefield literally named Same) or his Oxford friends that represent ‘Hobbits’. One date where Tolkien and Bratt discuss “Cellar Door” seems to be the origin for Lothlorian, and these moments including a joke about Composer Wagner taking 6 hours to tell a story about a magic ring, are scattered throughout. The script certainly hits a high note when veteran Derek Jacobi makes a brief appearance as the language professor that changes Tolkien’s educational direction. He also serves as the character in which this script hints as the inspiration to Gandalf.
Rarely does an ending justify much of a film’s problematic trek, but “Tolkien” ends on a really touching note. For those with the ability to pick out what this script says is the specific inspirations for “The Hobbit” and ‘Middle-earth’ can placate some of the slower more tedious moments. As the film cuts between time periods of war (mostly Tolkien in a trench reminiscing while his comrades battle overhead) and his childhood, it’s difficult for the viewer to find stable ground in which to grow with the characters. The script does top into the more emotional side of men which you rarely see in biopics or romance films and that’s to be admired. If it accomplishes anything “Tolkien” erases the simplistic portrait of that old professor who created “The Lord of the Rings” and expands upon the difficulties he endured during his early years.
Final Thought – Will provoke a stronger reaction from “The Lord of the Rings” fans than the average viewer.