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Review: Tolkien Is a Beautiful Portrait of a Legend, Not a Man

3.5/5 hobbitses.

Tolkien movie starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins

The new movie that follows beats in the life of author J.R.R. Tolkien is sumptuously framed and acted with emotion, but it’s unclear sometimes who Tolkien’s intended audience is.

From start to finish, Tolkien is a gorgeous movie to look at, rich with evocative sets, excellent period costumes, keen attention to the detail of objects, and attractive actors dappled by sunlight through the trees. It sets out to sketch the early life story of famed author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who created the indelible world of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. 

Movies based on Tolkien’s works have taken his considerable literary fame to the next level. At the Morgan Library in New York, where an exhibit on “the maker of Middle-Earth” currently offers the chance to see his letters, manuscripts, and illustrations, there are hours-long waits to get into the gallery. Interest in Tolkien only seems to grow, as do plans to bring more of his world to our screens in the future.

A biopic was likely inevitable. At least it landed in the hands of the talented Finnish director Dome Karukoski, a dedicated Tolkien fan since age 12 who, by his own account, felt a great personal affinity with Tolkien’s life experiences.

We follow J.R.R. (played earnestly by The Favourite’s Nicholas Hoult, with an impressive turn from Harry Gilby as the young Tolkien) in flashbacks from a youth marked by tragedy and hardship to his wilder years at Oxford. Binding it all together is a Tolkien in the Somme’s trenches, searching for a lost friend as a faithful lower-ranked soldier (named Sam, natch) helps him through terrible odds. The LoTR allusions here are not subtle, and they’re our first reminder that this is a work of fiction based on a legendary man’s now-legendary life, not a strict biography.

Tolkien is an emotional story that zigzags about to hit the main known elements of Tolkien’s origins, but anyone demanding documentary-like adhesion to an exact timeline and rigid facts need not apply. This is about things Tolkien could have seen and done, steered by what we know he did. That’s not to say the creatives here didn’t do their research. Many experts were consulted, books and letters poured over. Sometimes the color palette of a character’s costume matches Tolkien’s hand-drawn illustrations down to the seam. The dedication to aesthetic and reverence for the source material is moving on its own.

I greatly enjoyed the time spent with the young actors who play Tolkien and his bosom buddies Robert Gilson, Christopher Wiseman, and Geoffrey Bache Smith. The boys, who meet at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, form a fellowship together where they swear they will change the world through art.

They create the “Tea Club and Barrovian Society” (T.C.B.S.), gathering in a tea room for years, growing up together and forging unbreakable bonds despite their varied backgrounds. The adult actors mirror their younger selves quite beautifully, and this “fellowship” is the beating heart of the movie. Unfortunately, the T.C.B.S.’s grand plans to change the world are stymied by the outbreak of World War I, a war that would swallow an entire generation whole.

Tolkien and TCBS friends at Oxford

At the same time that he is forging ahead with his friends, Tolkien is inching closer to Edith Bratt (a lovely Lily Collins), a fellow orphan in his lodging-house, and their friendship buds into romance beneath entangled tree-trunks. Standing in the way of this gentle love story is Tolkien’s guardian priest (Colm Meaney, familiar to DS9 fans), worried about the non-Catholic Edith’s influence on Tolkien, who must secure a scholarship to Oxford.

Though Catholicism loomed large in Tolkien’s life (Edith eventually converted), this is an element the movie doesn’t explore in any depth, and that’s just fine. We’re busy hopping into the trenches of horrific warfare, charmed by the stacks of Oxford’s libraries, sneaking into the opera, learning Gothic, and sitting down to lively conversation over tea.

Tolkien has a lot of ground to cover, and it’s here where the movie can feel somewhat uneven: Tolkien purists will scoff at the liberties taken, while those who know next to nothing about the man will wonder why the camera lingers so meaningfully on depictions of dragons or knights, why we need spend time with Derek Jacobi’s eccentric Oxford professor who helps Tolkien into the study of philology. (Jacobi’s scenes are, however, excellent good fun.)

Since Tolkien himself is the one steady through thread, sometimes he comes across as the least interesting “character” of the lot, a blandly well-intentioned brilliant hero-figure. It’s a shame we couldn’t follow him even further into his life, when he was a busy professor and intensely involved father, crafting what would become one of our new epics late into the night.

The prime audience for Tolkien is someone who has enjoyed his books or the movie adaptations, and hasn’t spent too much time researching his life or Tolkien’s professed influences on his work. But no matter who you are, it’s hard to come out of Tolkien and not see that the film is a labor of love, lovingly wrought.

Overall, this is a visually beautiful movie that melds a period piece with a dreamy intrusion of fantasy elements. I’ve never seen anything like those World War I scenes where a feverish Tolkien is also glimpsing the beginnings of Middle-earth. There are also more modern sensibilities that feel welcome, like the movie’s quiet subtext that one of Tolkien’s friends could have harbored feelings for him, or Edith’s frustration at her female lot in a male-dominated world

Tolkien seeks to tie the author’s experiences into the fictional universe that he would one day create, and with this as its primary mission, it succeeds. If you already know his life story, you won’t be learning anything new here, but your eyes will thank you for the expected journey.

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.