The world of a J.R.R. Tolkien story is one of mystery, magic, romance, friendship, wars, and meaning-filled journies. But what was the world of the real Tolkien like? How did a British born Catholic orphan surviving by the goodwill of others create not only languages but a fantastical world still enchanting millions today? These are the questions the new biographical Tolkien movie attempts to answer.
ABOUT THE TOLKIEN MOVIE
After the successive deaths of both of their parents, the custody of John Ronald and his brother is given to a Catholic priest. This man ensures the two boys receive scholarships to a Birmingham school and lodging in the home of a wealthy widow.
In both these places, he meets people who will influence and change his life. Despite Tolkien’s initial reluctance to be grafted into their circle, he soon forms a strong bond with students Geoffrey Smith, Robert Gilson, and Christopher Wiseman. Together they form a club with the goal of changing the world through their artistic endeavors.
Tolkien also forms a strong attachment with his fellow boarder Edith. She relates to his orphan status and dependence on the charity of others. With her, he is himself, able to discuss his world of fantasy creatures and languages.
As it always does, life intervenes, first through the reality of Tolkien’s reduced circumstances, the expectations of his guardian, and finally the advent of a World War. But it’s the memories of these valuable relationships which sustain and inspire him.
TOLKIEN MOVIE REVIEW
Aside from his profession as a professor and author, his membership in the Inklings group, and his friendship with C.S. Lewis, I knew little about J.R.R. Tolkien, especially his early years. So, Tolkien is one of the few films I knew I had to see on the big screen. And it did not disappoint.
The structure of this slow-moving biographical drama takes a little adjustment as it jumps back and forth among three different times in Tolkien’s life; his childhood, his school years and his time in the trenches. Though it’s a bit unusual, it also serves to show how various moments of the author’s life influences others.
THE STORYTELLER’S STORY
At its’ heart, this narrative is all about the relationships shaping the young Tolkien and his richly imaginative inner world. Though brief, his mother’s influence gives the first glimpse at how his imagination and love of story forms. His interactions with his guardian significantly impact his physical circumstances and opportunities, though the film shies away from depicting the depth of Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs.
The significance of his loyal circle of friends and his relationship with Edith cannot be understated. These are the people who draw the young Tolkien out of his shell, encourage his intellectual and artistic pursuits, and challenge him to connect more deeply. It is also these relationships hinting at plots, characters, and relationships now so familiar to those who love Tolkien’s stories.
Though Tolkien is populated with recognizable faces, they are not necessarily famous faces. This proves to be an excellent casting choice as it allows viewers to focus on the character development of historically real people without the distraction of familiarity. Amazingly, the young actors playing Tolkien, Edith, and his friends as children resemble those who play them as adults. This certainly helps with continuity in a film with three timelines.
Harry Gilby who plays the child Tolkien captures his sensitivity and thoughtfulness so brilliantly. Fortunately, Nicholas Hoult continues in the same vein as the adult Tolkien, especially in the scenes where he sees all his dreams for the future shattered.
Lily Collins impresses as the restless Edith yearning to escape her life of drudgery. Her admiration for Tolkien’s talents and his access to options is balanced by her frustration in the restrictions of her life as a woman.
However, I’m not familiar with the actors who portray Tolkien’s friends (though Anthony Boyle as Geoffrey is known for playing the role of Scorpius in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), but I appreciated their unique personalities and interests. The bond of their group felt real and full of shared history and respect. Their rallying cry felt like an inside secret only true companions share.
Of course, it’s always a pleasure to see other familiar faces pop up, no matter how small the role. Viewers will be happy to see BBC favorite Pam Ferris (Call the Midwife, Little Dorrit, Jane Eyre) as the wealthy widow with whom Tolkien and Edith live. Fans of Victoria will recognize Adrian Schiller (Penge) in a character of a similar gruff personality. Personally, I was thrilled to see Colm Meaney in the role of a Catholic priest and Tolkien’s guardian.
WORLD FULL OF ATMOSPHERE
One of the other highlights of Tolkien is the exceptional cinematography. Whether in the great English outdoors, the crowded grey cityscapes or the warm, cozy interiors where the characters live, study and hang out, every scene feels rich with atmosphere. There are so many shots which took my breath away with their beauty. The film also manages to blend reality with Tolkien’s imaginary world with great skill, so that they almost become one.
This film, however, is not without its’ flaws. I do wish the Tolkien movie had given a bit more time to explore the relationship with his younger brother. I’m also a little disappointed in the ending, which felt a bit abrupt and disjointed from the rest of the film.
As someone who knew very little of Tolkien’s life, I felt this film served as an excellent introduction to the famous author. It humanized a man who has been much celebrated. In focusing on his earlier years, it introduces us to the people and circumstances inspiring his stories. It also whets my appetite to learn more about Tolkien and those people who had such a huge impact on his life. Not only is it interesting as the study of a life, but it also uplifts as an example of overcoming tragedy and adversity. Overall, Tolkien is a film I will not soon forget.
Where to Watch: Currently playing in theaters.
Content Note: Rated PG-13 for disturbing images of war and violence, and use of alcohol.
Have you seen the Tolkien movie? What are your thoughts on this biopic? Let me know in the comments!
Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures