From his birth in Southern Africa, the loss of his mother, his academic rise, his service during the Great War, and his subsequent fame, the story of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s life is nearly as adventurous as the characters he invented. The bio-pic Tolkien merges all these aspects to show how they echo with the events that take place in the literature the author created.
The film uses several main thrusts to connect the fictional creations and historical figure to one another. The first finds Second Lieutenant Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) in the muck and mire on the banks of the river Somme. Fevered and delusional, he meets up with a young private named Sam (Craig Roberts) who helps him to go further and further into the bleak fighting in order to reconnect with a brother-in-arms. Wild images in the din of war evoke apocalyptic horsemen like the Nazgûl black riders, shadows that tower like the evil Sauron, or flame-throwing infantry that evokes the wrath of Smaug the dragon.
This cross-cuts with a younger version of the character, played by Harry Gilby, who along with his younger brother must leave the Shire-like fields for the bustle and stench of an industrial town. After the death of his mother, Tolkien is fostered by a woman who has another ward, Edith (Mimi Keene), tasked with light entertainment and piano playing.
The young Tolkien befriends a group of boys and they set up in a local tea house to discuss all matters artistic. These four form a close bond, an easy allusion the Frodo/Sam/Pippin/Merry quartet that forms the basis of the Lord of the Rings saga.
Flashing forward from youth to just before the war, we see J.R.R. struggling between his affections for Edith (now played by Lily Collins) and his need for academic achievement. Under the responsibility of Father Francis (Colm Meaney), Tolkien chooses the academy, only to be nearly thrown out for his lack of attention. He’s introduced to Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) under less than flattering circumstances, yet his skills in philology are recognized and the foundation for Tolkien’s gift of language building and world creation flourishes.
All this is consistently offset against the awfulness of the war experience, tying the hope of youth to the despair of conflict. The allusions are often heavy-handed, especially for those already versed in the biography of the man, but the film has a welcome earnestness that’s in keeping with the subject’s storyline. Structurally, the movie does a decent enough job of keeping all these elements in play, rewarding those who go along for the ride.
There’s little in the way of radical changes to the conventions of the bio-pics genre here. Save for the military sequences, this easily could have been a small-screen tale lacking in cinematic sophistication. Still, the goal of the film is to shed light not only on this unique individual but to demonstrate, if perhaps lacking adequate subtlety, how art and biography merge, and these aspects of fact underpin even the most wild of fantastic mythmaking.
Fans may already know that Edith is the inspiration for Lúthien, or the importance of naming son Christopher after one of the gang, but for those not so well versed, the film brings enough charm and playfulness to appease. Hoult and Collins make a fine couple, and their affections are suitably British and proper, even when being silly backstage as another work about a ring unfolds in an opera house.
While Tolkien isn’t much more than a middlebrow telling of the biography of one man, it has enough charm to recommend to general audiences unaware of how the world of Hobbits, Orcs and Elves was shaped by a love of Norse mythology, the travails of a war career, and the love of a woman. The film plays with history as much as any fabulist, but it also gets to the broader truth of how these various elements cohere into the art, showing how this remarkable man and those surrounding him affected some of the most important and influential literature of all time.