In many ways, director Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien is a fine film — a definitive sampling of J.R.R. Tolkien’s formative years and a nicely fleshed-out character study. Yet, it also plays as programming you might find on a PBS “Masterpiece” program, with nicely defined Edwardian settings, fine period costumes and impressive performances all around. Still, similar to these “Masterpiece” programs, Tolkien succumbs to genre tropes and can’t quite mine Tolkien’s vigorous literary spirit and world-building capabilities.
Instead, Karukoski’s film caters to the casual Tolkien or “The Lord of the Rings” fan — bringing real-life experiences into the fray as he steadily conceives Middle Earth — in a standard, sometimes plodding production. The Finnish director, who’s helmed blockbusters in his home country, certainly knows his Tolkien lore, and that knowledge often translates nicely with the believable Nicholas Hoult (“The Favourite”) channeling the “LotR” scribe.
Still, Karukoski isn’t quite able to thread the narrative — with World War I scenes feeling disjointed and certainly secondary to Tolkien’s youthful squabbles and the happenings of his Tea Club Barrovian Society (T.C.B.S.) — an “exclusive” group of Tolkien’s King Edward’s School classmates. While this is no doubt an impressionable period, World War I firefights — effectively wrought — would have helped viewers begin to map Tolkien’s literary settings like Sauron’s base, the fiery Mordor. Instead, the film glosses over the treachery and instead lets the T.C.B.S. define the literary genius.
The Tolkien biopic begins with the author as a young boy living on the English countryside. He is ultimately forced to move to Birmingham after the premature death of his father. John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R.) Tolkien and his brother, Hilary Arthur Reuel, are then orphaned after the untimely death of their mother. This puts the Tolkiens in the care of Father Francis Xavier Morgan (Colm Meaney, “The Journey”) of the Birmingham Oratory, who endeavors to raise the boys as good Catholics. Dwelling in a Birmingham boarding house, an older Tolkien (Hoult) meets the musically inclined and witty pianist, the orphaned Edith Bratt (Lily Collins, “Rules Don’t Apply”), ever Tolkien’s equal. The two hit it off, but their love is forbidden, as his guardian, Father Francis, refuses to allow his pupil to elope with a Protestant.
Tolkien must devise a way to reunite with Edith — as he proceeds to Oxford to study classics (later English, or philology) and, soon, contends with a global conflict. In the early going, Tolkien, seemingly a loner dedicated to his literary studies and language creation, develops a strong bond with a group of King Edward’s classmates — a brotherhood that would become the T.C.B.S. and inspire much of the subtext of the famous “The Fellowship of the Ring.” The film essentially follows the T.C.B.S. to the Somme, after which life would never be the same.
The film’s faults do not lie with the cast — as Hoult and Collins deliver fine performances, backed by a strong supporting cast in Meaney; Derek Jacobi (“Tomb Raider”) playing Tolkien’s academic mentor Prof. Joseph Wright; Anthony Boyle (“The Lost City of Z”) as Geoffrey Bache Smith, Tolkien’s poet friend; Patrick Gibson (“The Darkest Minds”) as classmate Robert Q. Gilson; and Tom Glynn-Carney (“Dunkirk”), as classmate Christopher Wiseman. Instead, it is the intermittent cuts to dreamlike war scenes that muddy the film — functioning solely as catalysts to a mostly-tame script (courtesy of David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford). To be clear, No Man’s Land functions well as inspiration for Smaug and other fiery battle scenes, but there is simply a disconnect.
Another problematic component includes a dependence on teenage tribulations while Tolkien led a fascinatingly complex life beyond his school days and bout with trench fever. Considering Hoult’s age, Karukoski could have ventured a bit further into Tolkien’s biography — fleshing out the content and process behind “The Lord of the Rings.”
These apparent hiccups aside, Tolkien is an informative watch, with dramatic elements that begin to complete the puzzle of the author’s incredibly full life. Strong visuals from cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannessen (“The Hour of the Lynx”) also help buoy this competent film, including lifelike images of the war’s (unintentional) mass graves and its intricate and labyrinthine trench network.
Had Karukoski leaned on these settings and emotional beats a bit more, Tolkien the man would have emerged. Many of the pieces are in place — including childhood conflict and family dynamic — but the film seems to simply lack an emotional through-line, or at least one that informs the writer’s other characteristics.