J.R.R. Tolkien. In the world of storytelling and myth making, there is no giant who looms larger, and now his life story comes to the big screen in a wondrous journey of love, creativity and friendship in Tolkien.
As a teenager, J. R. R. Tolkien befriends a group of fellow artists and writers at his school, with whom he finds inspiration and courage. Their bond of fellowship grows with the years, as they experience life together. Meanwhile, Tolkien meets Edith Bratt, with whom he falls in love. But when World War I breaks out, Tolkien’s relationships with his friends are tested, an act which threatens to tear their “fellowship” apart.
When we think of the famed Tolkien images of a refined older wizard of Oxford enters our minds, complete with a pipe in hand and a fire blazing in the corner of his own private office. But what of the young Tolkien, and the journey that he took to become the storyteller that the world has come to cherish. This is where director Dome Karukoski takes us in Tolkien, and it is a fantastical journey worthy of one of the author’s own stories.
Chronicling Tolkien’s youth from that of a young orphan to his first love, years of study at Oxford and the horrors that he witnessed during the First World War, Karukoski offers up a fully rounded portrait of a young man trying to find his place in the world. Karukoski’s Tolkien is an extremely intimate and introverted film, and he really makes an effort to take you inside Tolkien’s mind and works to get to the heart of how his imagination was formed, and the events which formed it. Karukoski’s passion for Tolkien’s work and life really shows through, and he does a fine job with his tribute to the great writer’s life.
Taking on the mythic part of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is young star Nicholas Hoult, and the English actor really commits to getting to the heart of who this man was. Hoult’s power as an actor really shows through with Tolkien as he replaces his usual jovial self with the interior, slightly closed off John Ronald and his performance truly speaks to the trials and tribulations that all young men must go through.
Responsibility is placed on him at a young age and you see him battling with this in relation to his desire for the love of his childhood sweetheart Edith Bratt, and the sacrifices that his responsibilities cause him to make. Hoult really brings about the Victorian era sensibilities of Tolkien’s life, and his earnestness and gentlemanly passions are kept in line very much with the era in which the story is set. Believable and sincere in the part, Hoult takes audiences on a fascinating journey as Tolkien and as an audience member, it’s amazing to watch him grow on screen as the character.
Standing next to Hoult is Lily Collins, and this beautiful English rose does a tremendous job in her performance to bring to life the role of Edith Bratt, Tolkien’s one true love and the source for many of his most inspired creations. An orphan like Tolkien, Edith desperately longs to escape the world in which she is trapped and through Tolkien’s growing infatuation with both herself and the narratives he is dreaming, she is able to find such an escape.
Collins is extremely natural in the part and she has this creative spark and light which absolutely holds the attention of the screen and that helps to illuminate the creativity that Edith inspired in Tolkien. As a pair, Hoult and Collins have wonderful chemistry together and you absolutely buy into their shared love as John Ronald and Edith, and the fantastical worlds and characters that this love gave birth to.
A classic trope of mythological fiction is the guise of the enlightened master or wizard, and here in Tolkien the young author finds two such men in the form of Colm Meaney’s Father Francis Morgan, a Catholic priest who serves as a guardian and father figure to the young John Ronald, along with noted thespian Sir Derek Jacobi as Professor Joseph Wright, an Oxford philologist who helps to inspire and cultivate Tolkien as a man of language and words.
Both actors bring incredible significance to the film, with Meaney’s Father Morgan emphasizing Tolkien’s dedication to his duty and responsibility, while Jacobi’s Professor Wright helps to guide the young man in his life journey and provides a context for his Oxford life. Jacobi’s appearance in the film is particularly enjoyable to watch and in a shared scene between himself and Hoult, we see the elder wizard emphasizing the importance of language and why words matter.
Alongside his lived experience, Tolkien also explores the formation of the author’s fantastical creative mind, and it is here where things truly get magical. Karukoski and his team bring about the magic of the author’s work into the film with subtle influences as you see the young Tolkien’s mind at play through waking visions and dreams that he has. These are particularly present as Tolkien suffers through the muck and blood of the Battle of the Somme and in a heightened state of Trench Fever the forces of good and evil begin to shape around him. It’s a brilliantly creative way to get inside the mind of a burgeoning creative soul and the images that appear before the audience are truly enchanting.
It’s easy to fall in love with Tolkien, and part of this comes down to its dramatic setting and the beautiful way in which it has been captured by cinematographer Lasse Frank. Dreamlike and ethereal, and poised of the otherworldly elegance of the Victorian era, Tolkien is a beautiful sight to behold. Franck captures the film is such a way that you, the audience member, feel like wanting to run after the TCBS and join them for their usual cup of tea and discussion of mythic stories and creative passions. With its mixed palettes of vibrant greens and rich browns, Karukoski and Frank also draw the audience’s connection back to Tolkien’s love for nature and the natural world and the inspiration that it gave him.
Thematically Tolkien draws its power from two sources: love and friendship. For love, this comes to the young Tolkien from Edith, and the power and significance she gives to him by believing in his talents and wanting him to tell his stories and explore the very route of language. The passion that they share for each other is also of vital importance to the film, and Tolkien explores the presence of love as the most important force that shapes us into who we are as people.
Alongside the tenant of love are themes of friendship and brotherhood and how these ideas shaped Tolkien into the man that we know him as. This journey of boyhood friendships and encouragement is explored deeply throughout the film, and is paired alongside the horrors that Tolkien and his friends witnessed on the Western Front. These thematic touch points are of special importance to the film and as an audience member, they certainly touch your heart.
Tolkien is a love letter to ideas of creativity, friendship and love, and the power that these things give to our lives. It is an exceptional portrait of the 20th Century’s greatest ever myth maker and audiences will come away from it filled with a desire to kindle their own passions just as the great John Ronald Reuel Tolkien did. This one is not to be missed.
Image: 20th Century Fox