Thursday 17 October 2019

Tolkien review: 'I'm not sure what the estate are worried about - Tolkien emerges as a kind, gentle, resourceful man'

3 stars

Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins as Tolkien and his wife Edith in the Fox Searchlight film Tolkien
Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins as Tolkien and his wife Edith in the Fox Searchlight film Tolkien
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

What would Ronald Tolkien have made of his work’s posthumous success? He died in 1973, living long enough to see his Lord of the Rings trilogy embraced by addled hippies across the globe, but cannot have known that the popularity of his epic fantasy novels would mushroom to ever greater heights in the decades beyond, culminating in a five-film series that grossed almost $6 billion.

Would he have approved of Peter Jackson’s CGI-enhanced spectaculars? Possibly, but he was a quiet, withdrawn, bookish man, and might have prefered his hobbits, wizards, orcs and ents to remain figments of his readers’ imaginations.

Like many a teenager, I ploughed my way through Lord of the Rings, and while reading it again would be a penance, one cannot but admire the staggering fecundity of the man’s imagination. Strange beasts, kingdoms, realms, entire worlds flooded from his busy pen: he dreamt up working languages for the elves and dwarves, wove mythic cultures using fragments of Norse and Finnish legend.

But according to Tolkien, he didn’t make everything up: Dome Karukoski’s film suggests that the plots of  Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were partially inspired by the author’s experiences at school, college and during the Great War.  

Born in South Africa in 1892, J.R.R. Tolkien was no stranger to tragedy. His father died of rheumatic fever when he was just three: thereafter, the family returned to live a financially precarious life in the English midlands. But when Ronald was 12, his beloved mother Mabel died of diabetes, leaving he and his younger brother Hilary orphaned and penniless.

They were taken into the care of a stern but kindly Jesuit priest, Father Francis Morgan (played here with some grace by Colm Meaney), and placed in an Edgbaston boarding house run by a doughty widow called Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris). These drab surroundings are brightened by the presence of Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a fellow orphan and paid companion who pumps out sentimental tunes on the piano for the amusement of Mrs. Faulkner. Young Ronald (Nicholas Hoult) falls madly in love with her, and finds love of the platonic kind when he’s sent to a new school.

At King Edward’s, he forms an intense attachment to three boys who share his artistic aspirations. Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle), Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson) and Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney) will become Tolkien’s bosom pals, and form a secret society together. But their fellowship will be sorely tested by the outbreak of the First World War, as indeed will Ronald’s relationship with Edith.

The guardians of the Tolkien estate have been at pains to point out that they “did not approve of, authorise or participate in the making of this film,” and “do not endorse it or its contents in any way”. But I’m not sure what it is they’re worried about, because Tolkien emerges in this solid and very watchable biopic as a kind, gentle, resourceful man whose loyalty to friends and family is beyond reproach.

It’s based on an original screenplay by Irish writer and filmmaker David Gleeson, and focuses exclusively on Tolkien’s teenage years and young adulthood, using the author’s experiences in the trenches as a haunting framing device. And although we don’t see him writing or publishing Lord of the Rings (the film ends as he coins the word, ‘hobbit’), we do get a sense that Tolkien spent many decades dreaming up Middle Earth.

His passion for language is explored: Ronald learnt Esperanto in his teens to amuse himself, mastered many tongues and later became a Professor of Anglo-Saxon. When he goes to study at Oxford, his gifts are noticed by an eccentric linguistics professor (Derek Jacobi, in a wonderfully colourful cameo), who encourages him to hone his poetic gifts. He’s busily doing so when Germany invades Belgium, and Britain declares war. Ronald and his friends are dragged into the patriotic frenzy, but what’s pitched as a jolly and glorious chivalric adventure will turn out to be anything but.

Dome Karukoski’s film rather overdoes it when searching for literary inspirations in Tolkien’s life. When Ronald, giddy with trench fever, is frantically looking for his friend Geoffrey, he’s helped by a steadfast batman called Sam. Tolkien may have had visions of orcs and dragons gliding through clouds of mustard gas, but their appearance here seems clumsy, and in the context almost glib.

But overall Tolkien is a touching, entertaining, nicely handled film, which gives real insights into the creation of one of the most popular books ever written.

Also releasing this week:

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile review: 'Zac Efron gives an extraordinary turn in an ordinary film'


Long Shot review: 'The writing and direction are too loose to make this uneven comedy memorable'


The Curse of La Lloronar review: 'Very much a poor relation of The Conjuring'

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