I didn’t expect much from Tolkien. The author’s estate had nothing to do with the film, even openly condemning it a few weeks ago. Of course, they’re annoying cranks who hadn’t even seen the picture, and they were suspiciously mum when Peter Jackson mangled The Hobbit so profusely a few years ago. So I wasn’t that surprised when I ended up enjoying the movie.
For a film that has the fantasy author literally seeing dragons and other monsters on the battlefield while enduring WWI’s trench warfare, Tolkien is a lot subtler than it appears. The film is packed with references to characters and ideas that would later permeate his books. But what sets these references apart is how most are uncommented on. The kernels that led to J.R.R. Tolkien’s themes of nature vs industry are glimpsed in a simple, elegant dissolve from idyllic English countryside to the smokestacks and gray skies of Birmingham, where Tolkien had to move as a child. Later, a helpful soldier guides a sick John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) through the trenches. His name is Sam, like the ever-loyal friend from Lord of the Rings. But his name is mentioned quickly, off hand. So quickly, I missed it; it had to be pointed out to me later by my brother.
The movie wisely doesn’t attempt to encapsulate the whole of Tolkien’s life in two hours, focusing instead on his formative years, which are represented here as the building blocks to the themes of fellowship and love that so permeate his most famous works. On that front, the runtime is devoted to Tolkien’s relationship with a trio of his closest friends whom he met in school and the love he found with his eventual wife, Edith (Lily Collins). The friends hanging out, creating a club devoted to improving the world through the arts and Tolkien’s courtship of the intelligent, talented Edith fill out most of the film, creating a kind of Dead Poets Society without the melodrama. And it’s all couched cleverly through a flashback structure that lends the film some urgency as Tolkien frantically searches for one of those friends on the front lines of WWI.
The performances from the cast, who admittedly are more photogenic than their real-life counterparts, are good. And with likeable characters, lovely visuals, and a moving score by Thomas Newman, Tolkien is a very pleasant experience. Sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, but pleasant is not an insult in my book, especially after sitting through loud piffle like Detective Pikachu the night before.
Now, how will Tolkien play to an audience not already familiar with/interested in the author? I don’t know. Being a Tolkien devotee, I enjoyed picking up on all the references. All of those Easter Eggs, though, will probably mean nothing to the uninitiated. But if you’re in the mood for a humane and reserved film in a bucolic setting, there’s still a fair bit of enjoyment to be wrung out of Tolkien.