As a fan of many things including comic books, sci-fi fantasy, and of course movies there is one thing me and a lot of my ilk have in common, we love to hear about the creative process. We can devour inside info of the creation of something we fall in love with. I can remember seeing The Iron Giant in 1999 and wondering who is this Brad Bird guy and what else has he done? So when it comes to something as epic, influencing and game-changing as The Lord of the Rings was both at the time of its release in 1954 all the way to the live-action film versions in the early 2000’s, one cannot help but wonder where did all of these ideas come from, who thought all of this up?
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Harry Gilby/Nicholas Holt) is one of two children who is uprooted from his home in a small village in the hills to live in the industrial end of Birmingham, filled with smoke and cities. Shortly thereafter the Tolkien boys lose their mother and are left in the guardianship of Father Francis (Colm Meany) who places the boys in a home where they will live with another orphan Edith Bratt (Mimi Keene/Lily Collins) and go to an all boys boarding school. Here, young Ronald meets a trio of boys who will become his life long friends. With flashes forward to the deadly trenches of World War I, Tolkien struggles to survive with hopes of reuniting with the woman he loves.
Tolkien like so many other biopics before it falls into the same pitfalls as in having too much of a life to cover and very little time to do it in. Director Dome Karukoski along with the writers of the film David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford were wise to keep to his young life before he became the famous writer of The Hobbit and the Rings trilogy, but struggle to keep us engaged throughout. Maybe it’s the setting and place where one was to be a proper gentleman with limited displays of emotion, but every time the film would have a jolt of inspiration or true emotion it quickly fizzled out. The relationship with Tolkien and his friends has rare moments of levity and even rarer moments of what kept these boys together. The fact that all of them wanted to be creators of art in one form or another took a backseat for the narrative as it apparently did in their lives, but it was hard to feel anything for them individually.
The saving grace of the film is Nicolas Hoult, who broke into film with the underrated About a Boy and has since been in X-Men films, zombie comedies, and in the classic Mad Max: Fury Road. In Tolkien he is reserved mostly but with his piercing Benedict Cumberbatch gaze and bumbling Hugh Grant charm he really is the standout and I hope he plays to his strengths in his upcoming work. Lily Collins has a strong performance as Edith and does her best to keep up but is at the mercy of a truncated script as she’s given little to do.
As a fan of Tolkien’s work, I would have rather seen his struggles with writing his classics, while trying to hold a family together and dealing with the writing and scholarly world of the times. But as a fan of film I just wanted a solid love letter to the man that would grow to become a legend while giving us legends, instead this film is a “not to scale” note at the bottom of an otherwise enormous map of a life.