There’s a moment in Tolkien where a young J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) is confronted by Oxford linguist professor, Joseph Wright, on his constructed language. Tolkien admits that he borrowed a lot of Finnish to form this language but Wright dismisses that claim, stating that language is constantly being built upon and is defined by how we give words meaning beyond mere soundbites. No one would regard the word, ‘Mordor’, for example, with dread if we didn’t understand the power Sauron’s evil held over the land. But whereas his Lord of the Ring books integrated paste folklores into something wholly new, Tolkien settles for a deeply intimate, yet conventional, biopic. It’s a film not so much about Middle-Earth as it is about the events that inspired the essence of its writer’s most timeless motif: fellowship.
Beneath all the wizards, orcs, and mystical rings is a message: the most treacherous of tasks can be overcome through simple comradeship. The first time young Ronald Tolkien hears the line, “men should be comrades,” it’s with a school headmaster whose son, Robert Gilson, he will later befriend. That line would take on a darker meaning a decade later at the Battle of the Somme, where he bore witness to some of the greatest horrors ever unleashed by modern warfare. War, camaraderie, mythology, and romance— all the real-life hallmarks of a Lord of the Rings novel, complete with a protagonist struggling to overcome these obstacles. But as Tolkien shows, the journey matters more than the destination, as that offers the true test of a man’s character and courage.
The film conveys its narrative through flashbacks as Lieutenant Tolkien wrestles with trench warfare and mustard gas. Ronald’s family moved back to England from South Africa following his father’s death, only to lose his mother years later to sickness. Orphaned under the guardianship of Father Morgan (Colm Meaney), he and his brother Hilary are sent to King Edward’s Boarding School to mingle with their upper-class peers. It’s here he befriends a trio of boys: Gilson, Geoffrey Smith, and Christopher Wiseman (played in adulthood by Patrick Gibson, Anthony Boyle, and Tom Glynn-Carney). Or, as they preferred to call themselves, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, a “fellowship” of sorts dedicated to debating artistic aspirations and transforming the world.
But these three boys are not the only major influences on Ronald’s life. There’s also the lovely Edith Bratt (Lilly Collins), a piano student who shares his love for language and fantasy. One fascinating scene, in which the two sit down for tea, demonstrates the power of language by shifting one phrase “cellar door” into the more mystical Seladore. There’s wisdom and passion in Hoult’s voice as Tolkien expands this word into its own mythology, a dark forest path leading to two trees whose poison sap contrasts with the way their branches have passionately intertwined over the centuries. The two fall in love, of course, and any Shire scholar can attest how this love, and later marriage, inspired numerous LotR characters from Aragorn and Arwen to Beren and Lúthien. But news of that love spread and Father Morgan, reiterating his mother’s wish that Ronald attend Oxford, causes Tolkien to temporarily relinquish contact with Edith to honor the family.
Each film event comes with just the right amount of symbolism to indicate a LotR inspiration. Ronald and Edith’s opera visit to Richard Wagner’s The Ring Cycle bears quite a resemblance to the One Ring’s lore. The muddy, corpse-ridden pits of No Man’s Land would later be reconfigured as the dreary Dead Marshes, the central entrance to Mordor. Some of these inspirations are psychological, such as Tolkien hallucinating the smoke and ashes of war as Sauron’s fiery crown. Others are a bit on the nose, such as the name of a fellow soldier aiding Tolkien in the trenches. Nevertheless, they all paint a broad picture of one man processing the world during his adolescence and the darkest conflict mankind had ever seen up to that point.
While the cinematography rarely goes to Peter Jackson heights, director Dome Karukoski cleverly goes about things a different way. Instead, he frames the mise-en-scene of England and Europe as a template for Middle-Earth, something Tolkien would expand upon through his lived experiences and imagination. Granted, Oxford and St. Edwards are no Gondor stand-in but the forests of Ronald’s youth could easily be viewed as a place of wonder, mystery, and adventure for wandering hobbits and dwarves. These visuals are backed by a soundtrack that, while more nuanced than Howard Shore’s iconic score, shows up when it’s needed. Balancing natural and fantastical acoustics, it enhances various pivotal moments where an act of tragedy or passion lays the foundation for future world building in a certain author’s literary text.
One doesn’t have to look far to see how Tolkien’s friends and future wife influence his work. Robert, Geoffrey, and Christopher are a bunch of mischievous chaps driven by similar worldly aspirations as Ronald. We don’t see what they do outside of these interactions, which is a weak point – unlike LotR, these side characters are just an extension of the protagonist’s desires. Even Edith lacks a narrative quest beyond “be someone Ronald can’t have until he realizes what he wants.” But we understand that these characters are restricted by the expectations of parents and guardians alike, prepped to inhabit a role that isn’t necessarily what they want. In each other’s company, however, their camaraderie is enough to make any quest, whether miniscule or life-threatening, manageable.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars
I can’t say whether Tolkien depicts its titular author’s life in verbatim, especially given his surviving family’s refusal to endorse the film. But as a product of film language, the same language that introduced his world to a new generation of fans, it works. Mainly because, by deconstructing Tolkien’s memories, Tolkien invokes the spirit of his work, a spirit that made sense of reality by converting it into mythology and, in turn, laid the groundwork for modern fantasy writing. Because that spirit remains intact, I’ve got a feeling casual and die-hard Tolkienites alike will walk out of this film quite satisfied.