A portrayal of the events that shaped the man who would come to write The Lord of the Rings. 



Watching Dome Karukoski's biopic about the early years of J.R.R. Tolkien one feels that this is a film which, rather than being new, could have been made fifty years ago. For some that may sound like a serious criticism but in point of fact I mean it as a compliment. This is after all a tale that starts around 1900 with Tolkien's childhood in Worcestershire, moves on to his schooldays at King Edward's School in Birmingham and then to his time at Exeter College, Oxford. This narrative is presented in the form of flashbacks from scenes of the First World War in which Tolkien fought at the Battle of the Somme but, save for a brief final section, the film does not move beyond 1916.


Clearly this picture has come about in the hope that the huge popularity of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in their film versions will mean that their admirers will want to see this portrayal of Tolkien's formative years. That may or may not prove to be the case (the film's box-office appeal has probably been dented unfairly by responses to the much-publicised news that the Tolkien family have refused to endorse the film, a decision which appears to have been taken without seeing it). In fact, not least for older viewers who enjoy period pieces, Tolkien is probably a movie that they would appreciate and it is undoubtedly far superior to the recent Red Joan which, by chance, shares the same format with the main narrative presented in a series of flashbacks.


That particular format may have been chosen in this case due to the feeling that a greater sense of drama was needed to make Tolkien's youth the basis for a whole movie. But the fact is that the screenplay is of a quality which brings to life persuasively the portrayal of the bond which, developed first at King Edward's, united Tolkien with three other students so that, despite his coming from a poorer background, they would become friends for life. Writing convincing dialogue for characters in that setting is far from easy but here it is achieved and the actors concerned all succeed in bringing them to life regardless of the fact that all four friends have to be cast twice over as their younger and somewhat older selves (in the case of Tolkien himself that's Harry Gilby giving over the role to Nicholas Hoult). Equally persuasive is Lily Collins as the girl who would become Tolkien's wife and there is a good cameo from Derek Jacobi as a professor who gave vital encouragement to the young Tolkien.


Not all of the film goes this well: in other areas some scenes are less convincing and the attempts to foreshadow Tolkien's novels (not least in apparitions added to the war scenes) can seem forced. However, far from lamenting the absence of directorial flourishes or modern-day touches to spice up the material, I commend the film for an approach that puts its faith in the story it has to tell. Tolkien is not an exceptional work and it's certainly not faultless, but it is a film with the courage to turn aside from contemporary trends in cinema and to tell a period story in a style suited to it.




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


Dir Dome Karukoski, Pro Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping and David Ready, Screenplay David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford and Kris Thykier, Ph Lasse Frank, Pro Des Grant Montgomery, Ed Harri Ylönen, Music Thomas Newman, Costumes Colleen Kelsall.


Fox Searchlight Pictures/TSG Entertainment/Chernin Entertainment-20th Century Fox.
112 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 3 May 2019. Cert. 12A.