Tolkien: Film Review

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Tolkien is the true story of the youth of one of the most famous and acclaimed fantasy writer in history. The creator of Lord of the Rings himself: J.R. R. Tolkien. The film takes place over the course of his youth and early adult life, including his experience in the trenches during World War One, and doesn’t actually describe the process of writing his culturally paradigm-shifting works (with a few hints and parallels drawn along the way which I’ll detail). Rather, it focuses on the man; providing a sense for the formation of one of the most celebrated minds in writing. The film stars Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien, as well as Lily Collins as Tolkien’s wife; Edith Bratt.

Just to clarify my personal stake in the quality or lack thereof in this film; I so happen to not be the biggest Lord of the Rings fan in the world. I’ve seen all the films and found them pretty good without being entranced, and I’ve only read the first book. I have heaps of respect for the historical and cultural reputation of the middle-earth universe, but I don’t think I could ever call myself a fan. As such, Tolkien is not my lord and saviour, I went into this film with nothing more than a passing interest.

What I was met with was, by my account, a perfectly lovely film. The strongest aspect was, by far, the way the writers have built character. Writing kids dialogue is never easy, you want to avoid the trap of writing kids like adults and putting incongruently mature voices to immature characters, without making it seem like a condescending dumbing-down. The youth component of the film is a significant one, and the writers have found the right tone with the T.C.B.S group of kids. Strong performances from those kids, matching the strength of their older counterparts, makes for an extremely potent character dynamic between those four characters. Are they all developed perfectly? No, but the fact that at least three of them are despite one of them being a titular character is creditworthy. Nicholas Hoult is very good as Tolkien. I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of his portrayal, but he does a splendid job as the young, exceptionally talented and lightly reserved young man. Lily Collins matches him in most all respects. Though obviously not quite as much the focus, her character is treated with much more nuance than perhaps I was expecting. Their chemistry is decent, and is helped along when necessary by some consistently deft writing.

The film is more or less not at all about The Lord of the Rings. With the exception of a couple blatant mentions, including what looks like the start of the process near the end of the film, the story focuses on the factors that shaped one of the most extraordinary storytelling minds of all time. His relationship with Miss Bratt and the T.C.B.S are front and center by any comparison. No opportunity is lost, however, to drop in the odd not-so-subtle parallel between his life and what he would go on to write in his books. The revelation that the man half carrying Tolkien the length of a First World War trench on a quest to find his friend is called ‘Sam’, or the imagery of the inn he stays at with his mother and brother, does little more than elicit a laugh. You laugh because it’s funny though, not because it’s a pathetic grab at a reference. I didn’t see anything wrong with the ways the author’s life is shown to parallel some of the events of the books and films, but, once again, I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of much of any of it. The best writers write from experience, so I don’t imagine that the correlation was zero, but the specific parallels are a little hard to believe. That said, the tone was not such that it seemed as though they were trying hard to convince you of its accuracy, and it makes for a more interesting narrative exercise.

I did thoroughly enjoy this film. It’s not spectacular; it does a lot well without being exceptional. In what it does well is a laying down of Tolkien’s important relationships in his life. The film captures a certain amount of beauty in the way Tolkien held those dear to him near his heart; by the end of the experience you find yourself very deeply contented with the representation of affection human beings can have for each other. Is it Lord of the Rings fan service? Probably not. Instead, we see a character sketch full of depth, vulnerability, and potency. In a world where cynicism and pessimism creeps ever deeper into the entertainment of the day, it might be a healthy reminder of the power of a fairytale.

– Aman Datta

Aman’s Score – 70/100                                                                      Aryamaan’s Score –