In a tearoom in Birmingham there lived a writer: J. R. R. Tolkien. This is his story. Sadly, it’s not one equal to those told in the books that made him his name; the one biopic to rule them all this ain’t.
With there being so many aspects of Tolkien that never really get going, it’s somewhat of a non-starter. So much so, in fact, that it quite literally concludes just as the titular author’s career is on the cusp of taking flight. Here we don’t witness his writing of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings novels. Rather, it’s a tale of the lead up to this point and the events and friendships that shaped the budding storyteller’s outlook. An artist whose journey and experiences would ultimately bleed into his legendary works.
Harry Gilby – later succeeded by Nicholas Hoult – plays the eponymous scribe in his younger years, as we learn of his deepening and loyal companionship with the three fellow creatives who would help him to discover his artistic voice. Hoult follows, tackling his early adulthood and burgeoning love life with Lily Collins’ Edith Bratt. Gilby fares better in his portion, the film buoyed by a young Tolkien’s sense of creative discovery, the early chemistry between him and his like-minded friends a solid remedy to the clunkily handled initial tragedy that befalls his family. Not that there’s a great deal of narrative drive, but the tea drinking youngsters prove at least to be a pleasant enough group to spend some time with.
By the time it’s Hoult’s turn to take over as J. R. R though, that earlier lack of urgency in plot and character development begins to show. He’s grown in age, but not as a person. Hoult attempts to inject emotion into the role, predominantly when it comes to Tolkien and Edith’s on/off romantic subplot, but the chemistry just isn’t there between the two. In their first scene together we begin to see glimpses of Tolkien’s eye for worldbuilding, early hints of him learning his craft, and how Edith can inspire him to do so. Yet, the relationship is cut short before it can ever truly grow into anything convincing, rekindling later to little effect. It doesn’t help that the whole film is so buttoned up and repressed. Us Brits are known for our collective stiff upper lip, but it wouldn’t have hurt for Tolkien to have come out of its emotional shell just a bit.
Scenes portraying Tolkien’s time serving in the Great War add some visual punch (the location work and cinematography, in general, are the film’s standouts), even if there’s something that feels borderline questionable about the choice of replacing German forces with imagery of Smaug and Sauron on the battlefield. On the other hand, it’s as creative in its expression of the author’s source of inspiration as the film gets, with Hoult also at his best here when allowed to play in a situation which brings the highest of emotional stakes for the character, so I won’t grumble too much.
I know that Hobbits have no use for adventures (“nasty, disturbing, and uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner!”), but I wouldn’t have said no to seeing a touch more excitement from a life well lived.
Rating (out of 5):