After exploring the life of artist Touko Laaksonen in Tom of Finland, director Dome Karukoski returns with another biopic about an influential creative mind. Turning his sights to famed writer J. R. R. Tolkien, Karukoski’s Tolkien focuses on the formative years that inspired the author’s Middle-earth novels.
A more ambitious endeavour than his previous work, Karukoski’s film strive to push the boundaries of the genre. However, much like the teenage version of Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult), the film is not confident enough in its own potential. The result is a work that is filled with interesting moments, but ultimately succumbs to conventional plot devices that the real Tolkien would have scoffed at.
Shifting between his time in war and flashbacks to his youth, the story picks up just as Tolkien and his younger brother are placed under the guardianship of Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney) and the foster care of affluent widow Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris). Karukoski quickly establishes the young writer as a gifted mind. Tolkien is shown spending his spare time devouring literary works, writing and illustrating his own short stories and creating complex languages. He is the type of individual who can could recite Chaucer without a hint of pretension.
It is this combination of intellect and humility that sparks a lasting friendship with fellow students Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle) and Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney). Creating a clubhouse of sorts in a local pub the lads share their love for literature, poetry, art and music; and pledge to change the world through their artistic pursuits.
It is in these moments of camaraderie where Tolkien is most engaging.
Through the young men’s friendship Karukoski captures the thirst for creative expression and the harsh realities of societal expectations. The latter of which really hits home when observing the way class and gender complicates the budding romance between Tolkien and the love of his life Edith Bratt (Lily Collins). A talented musician, and fellow foster child, Bratt longs to be free of her life of servitude as Mrs. Faulkner’s companion.
Unfortunately, Karukoski never allows the film to fully immerse itself in the river of fellowship and love it attempts to swim in.
Tolkien’s flow is constantly disrupted by Karukoski’s fascination with Tolkien’s time in the war. Rather than offer a nuanced take on the horrors of war, Karukoski uses Tolkien’s bout with Trench Fever to draw visual parallels to characters that appear in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Everything from dragons to Lord Sauron to the Nazgûl are referenced on the battlefield. There is even a key scene where an ailing Tolkien, aided by a loyal solider name Sam (Craig Roberts), stumbles upon a pile of dead bodies intricately woven to form a giant ring.
This imagery might have been interesting had Karukoski not already succinctly shown the power of Tolkien’s imagination via his art work as a child. Furthermore, the heavy-handed pandering to fans cheapens what could have been an enriching exploration into Tolkien’s numerous accomplishments in life.
In its attempt to capitalize on the success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien frequently forgets that the artist is often as precious as the art he produces.