Captain John Ronald Tolkien (Nicolas Hoult) stumbles through the trenches of World War I towards the front lines. Clearly feverish, his erstwhile soldier-at-arms Sam (Craig Roberts) begs him to return to safety. However Tolkien won’t hear of it. He needs to make sure that his childhood friend Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle) is safe. Buffeted and battered by explosions as he steps over the dead bodies, Tolkien’s mind is continually flooded with scenes from the past and strange characters from the future…
...steps out of the shadow of Peter Jackson’s adaptations as its own dramatic beast.
Finnish director Dome Karukoski’s film biography of J. R. R. Tolkien is an unexpected gem. Straddling the personal history and future impact that the author of ‘The Lord of The Rings’ would have, Karukoski finds a vibrant voice for his film in amongst a chorus of fan expectation.
Where often, the backstory to an author’s life is rarely as engaging as their own, the opposite is true here. Seamlessly moving across Tolkien’s adolescence and the formative furnace of war that awaits his generation, ‘Tolkien’ is a script is littered with literary influences, all of which are refreshingly underplayed whilst still remaining deliciously available.
In the main role, Nicholas Hault convinces as the titular orphan, channeling the hurt of his past into an academic future that is still ring fenced by prejudice. Arriving later in his life, Lily Collins’s Edith Bratt brings both desire and emotional confusion. Both inspired by and challenged by Tolkien’s imagination, hers is not a token presence. Spikly reflecting his own past and railing against a similarly denied future, her performance gives both the film shape and a future that Tolkien can fight for.
However, where the film really excels is in its use of budget and its restraint thereof. When the war comes into Tolkien’s life, it is given a suitably vast canvas and all the grit that is needed to convey the horror of its futility. Swirling in the screams and terror of each attack, his future literary characters step out of the fog of war. Neither completely realised nor cheaply rendered, they are instead pitch perfect cyphers for Tolkien’s hopes and fears beyond the death around him.
In the end, Karukoski delivers a biopic that not only balances expectations but exceeds them. Vast and richly hewn when it needs to be, quiet and withdrawn when it should be, ‘Tolkien’ steps out of the shadow of Peter Jackson’s adaptations as its own dramatic beast. Neither a bookend nor a distant drama to what we have seen before, it is a solid tale about trauma and unexpected gifts it can bestow on an imaginative mind in the worst of circumstances.0