Thursday 23 May 2019

Tolkien's unexpected journey to immortality

The entertaining biopic explores the early life experiences of the legendary creator of Lord Of The Rings

JRR Tolkien, played by Nicholas Hoult, had quite a tragic upbringing
JRR Tolkien, played by Nicholas Hoult, had quite a tragic upbringing
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 foreseen that the popularity of his epic fantasy novels would mushroom to ever greater heights in the decades beyond, culminating in a six-film series that grossed almost $6bn.

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 Possibly, but he was a quiet, withdrawn, bookish man, and might have preferred his hobbits, wizards, orcs and ents to remain figments of his readers' imaginations.

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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, JRR Tolkien was no stranger to tragedy. His father died when he was just three. Thereafter, the family returned to live a financially precarious life in the English midlands. But when Tolkien 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 Morgan (Colm Meaney), and placed in an Edgbaston boarding house. These drab surroundings are brightened by the presence of Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a fellow orphan. Young Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) falls 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 will Tolkien'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". But I'm not sure what they're so worried about because Tolkien emerges in this solid biopic as a kind, gentle, resourceful man, and a fiercely loyal friend.

It's based on an original screenplay by Irish film-maker 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, we do get a sense that Tolkien spent many decades dreaming up Middle Earth.

His passion for language is explored: he learnt Esperanto in his teens to amuse himself, mastered many tongues and later became as 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. Tolkien and his friends are dragged into the patriotic frenzy, but what's pitched as a jolly chivalric adventure will turn out to be anything but.

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, sweet, nicely handled film, which gives real insights into the creation of one of the most popular books ever written.

Tolkien (12A, 112 mins) 3/5 stars

At the movies

Long Shot - (16, 125mins) 3/5 stars

Seth Rogen seems an unlikely lead for a romcom, but he’s made one work before (Knocked Up) and almost repeats the trick here. He plays Fred Flarsky, a campaigning journalist who’s just lost his job when he runs into his childhood babysitter. Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is a US Secretary of State with presidential ambitions, and hires Fred to spice up her speeches. He’s good at it, but Charlotte’s handlers aren’t happy when an unlikely romance ensues. Rogen and Theron are good together, and Long Shot has genuinely funny moments. But the writing and direction are too loose to make this uneven comedy memorable.

The Curse Of La Llorona - (16, 93 mins) 2/5 stars

In The Curse Of La Llorona, a widowed social worker in 1970s Los Angeles is forced to confront an ancient evil. When Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) discovers that a Mexican client named Patricia is keeping her two children in a cubby hole, they’re taken into care. Shortly afterwards, the two boys are founded drowned in the LA River. Anna is distraught and finds out what killed them when a vengeful 400-year-old Mexican ghost comes looking for her kids as well. Part of the James Wan-produced Conjuring series, La Llorona is a poor relation, resorting too early to technical horror, cheap tricks and nervous attempts at humour.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile - (16, 110 mins) 3/5 stars

The real Ted Bundy, who killed at least 30 women, was apparently charm personified. He even managed to turn his televised trial into a ratings sensation, showboating for the cameras and taking over his own defence. Zac Efron is well cast here as the blandly smiling Bundy, whose suave exterior hid, well, nothing except horror. Lily Collins plays Liz Kendall, Ted’s unsuspecting wife, and Efron is very good as the emotionally and morally vacuous Bundy. This biopic is well made, but gives so little detail about his barbaric crimes (necrophilia, mutilations etc) that it risks glamorising this clever nobody.

Films coming soon...

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith); Float Like A Butterfly (Hazel Doupe, Dara Devaney, Johnny Collins); Amazing Grace (Aretha Franklin, Sydney Pollack, Mick Jagger); The Hustle (Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson).

Irish Independent

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