John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had a life occasionally as dramatic and compelling as the stories he told in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But you'd never know it from watching this new movie.
Born in South Africa, he'd lost both parents by the age of 12, yet bested many of his English upper class schoolmates in languages, wooed a fellow orphan named Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) despite the fact that the priest who raised him (Colm Meaney) forbade the match. Oh, and he also survived trench warfare in World War I.
74 Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Patrick Gibson, Pam Ferris, Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O’Reilly, Derek Jacobi, Craig Roberts, Colm Meaney, Ty Tennant, Mimi Keene, Anthony Boyle, Tom Glynn-Carney, Harry Gilby
Director: Dome Karukoski
Rating: PG-13, for some sequences of war violence
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Tolkien has class struggles, forbidden love and the madness of battle. It even celebrates how liberating and magical language can be, and yet it has all the energy and passion of a book report written under duress.
Finnish director Dome Karukoski and screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford hit all the major events of the author's life before he discovered Middle Earth. Somehow, few of those moments register as a blank on a checklist.
Laura Donnelly's turn as Mabel Tolkien, the author's mother, is so fleeting that it's hard to miss her when she goes. Karukoski and the screenwriters seem so intent on making sure all the important people in Tolkien's youth get named checked they've forgotten to give any of them personalities. When Tolkien (played as a boy by Harry Gilby and a man by Nicholas Hoult) and his classmates bond or feud, it's hard to tell which of his friends is which and what impact they had on his development.
The Tolkien estate has been reluctant to endorse or support any bio-pic about him, and their lack of involvement is evident throughout. Although Tolkien wrote some important scholarship on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf, he's understandably best known for his stories about Middle Earth. By only tangentially referring to the tales he'd write later, viewers get only a vague hint of why anyone would care what kind of life he had.
The situation is similar to what happened to the makers of the Sylvia Plath bio-pic Sylvia that featured none of her engrossing poems. Without Plath's carefully-chosen words, Gwyneth Paltrow was merely playing someone who was morose instead of a powerful artist. It's like making a bio-pic of Beethoven and missing the Ninth Symphony. Without the Hobbits or Gandalf, what's the point?
Actually, maybe Tolkien could have worked if it had taken a similarly intimate approach to William Nicholson's play and movie Shadowlands, which recounted the love life Tolkien friend and fellow fantasy writer C.S. Lewis. You didn't need to know much about The Chronicles of Narnia or his essays on Christianity to feel the love between Lewis and Joy Gresham.
The production is handsome, and the cast seem committed, but their characters don't change enough to make the story move. If you really want to see someone do justice to Tolkien, watch Peter Jackson's movies on The Lord of the Rings or sing along with Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On" and "The Battle of Evermore."
Robert Plant understands more what made Tolkien special.
MovieStyle on 05/10/2019