When watching Fox Searchlight's Tolkien, it’s important to remember it’s not really a biopic. It is a movie about the life of the man who created The Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the most enduring and universally popular modern myths in history. But it’s really an origin story of the stories themselves rather than a straight biography of their author.
The film opens in the middle of live-combat in the Battle of the Somme during Tolkien’s time as an army officer in World War I. He’s ill with trench fever and hallucinates knights on horseback riding amidst walls of flame, which makes for the first of many visual callbacks to the books he’d later write. The film doles out these moments judiciously, though, so they effectively communicate the development of his inspiration without feeling like blatant nostalgia mining. The war serves as the backdrop to his other memories as well, as he flashes back to his boyhood and college years while drifting in and out of consciousness on the battlefield.
The bulk of the story focuses on his formative years living in a boarding house in Birmingham with his brother and attending the King Edwards School and later Oxford. Tolkien divides its time illuminating his most influential relationships, bouncing back and forth between his sweet courtship of future wife Edith and his friendships with Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith and Christopher Wiseman. The film isn’t shy about making direct connections between his love affair -- cut short by his guardian, Father Morgan (Colm Meany, in a rare rigid and taciturn performance) -- his incredibly close school friendships and his later work. Edith’s beauty, elegance and strength effortlessly evoke the elves of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and it’s on one of their first picnics where his utter enchantment with trees comes through beautifully.
His friendships with the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) more directly illuminate his later work, as well as his devotion to fellowship and its importance. It’ll be easy to apply the same types of homoerotic undertones many still apply to Frodo Baggins and Samwell Gamgee’s friendship in Lord of the Rings. But Harry Gilby playing Young Tolkien and later Nicholas Hoult coming on the scene when he begins his tenure at Oxford both turn in performances delicate and layered enough that it’s clear the movie isn’t trying to speculate about the author’s sexuality or sensationalize what were deep, emotional friendships in any way. Tolkien is definitely sentimental, but if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, this isn’t anything new – it’s appropriate.
It’s worth noting that nearly every performance is as nuanced and full as Hoult and Gilby’s. Tom Glynn-Carney, Patrick Gibson and Anthony Boyle play the other three members of the T.C.B.S., aChristopher Wiseman, R.Q. Gilson and G.B. Smith respectively, and will make you annoyed and jealous you weren’t part of their nerdy, nerdy club. Lily Collins is every inch the ethereal a devoted Elvish princess that captured Tolkien’s imagination and heart. The movie’s greatest success comes in balancing the authors devoted friendships with what approaches an epic romance between Tolkien and Edith.
Overall the movie could be accused of worshipping Tolkien to the extent that he seems literally incapable of doing any wrong other than fighting his own personal demons and finding his place in the world. But, again, this movie isn’t just about him, it’s about how he became the creator of one of the most enduring stories in modern literature. What works about it so well is that Tolkien embraces its purpose the entire time and it’s effective when it leans into imagery and references from the author’s later work. It uses different periods of his relatively “normal” life as touchstones for his high fantasy work, and the moments connecting his early-20th century life in Europe with Middle-Earth create something quite literally magical.
The film's premiere in the middle of Game of Thrones’ final season will no doubt have people drawing comparisons between the two franchises, as they have for years, but Tolkien is a great indicator about how two of fantasies most defining properties differ. Obviously if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, you’re primed to enjoy this movie, but even if you’re not, Tolkien’s story is compelling and well-acted enough to beguile you, too. It’s definitely a romantic, sentimental story, but that’s appropriate considering its subject matter is the creation of a romantic, sentimental epic.
Directed by Dome Karukoski, Tolkien stars Nicholas Hoult, Lilly Collins, Colm Meaney, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynn-Carney, Craig Roberts, Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O'Reilly, Pam Ferris and Derek Jacobi, and is set to be released on May 10.