For anyone who knows me, fantasy is arguably one of my favorite genres of fiction out there. There are no established rules of reality that tie anyone down. There are usually epic battles, fantasmical creatures, and stories enriched with magic and wonder that helps immersive someone in a purely escapist element. Any troubles and worries from the real world can just dissipate as you dive into the story that you know will have something for you to take away and hold close to your heart. As such, it is no wonder that I’ve personally always felt drawn to the work of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien. However, I had always wondered how much of his work was inspired by his own personal experiences. Luckily, with the release of director Dome Karukoski’s biopic TOLKIEN, audiences both young and old are introduced to the early life of the father of the modern high fantasy genre.
In a span of 111 minutes, the audience is taken through the formative years of the author’s life as he’s trapped within fever dreams on the battlefront during World War I. As a feverish TOLKIEN (played marvelously by Nicholas Hoult) flashes back and forth between the past and the present, we get to learn how he was orphaned as a child, how he discovered the friendship that would lead to his development of the fellowship in his Lord of the Rings. We also learn how he discovered love and his Elvin muse through his interactions with fellow orphan Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), who hasn’t quite been explored by history and should definitely be researched more moving forward.
The audience also is able to see how language and his fascination in the deconstruction and reconstruction of languages was a constant from the very beginning of his life leading up to his work post-World War I. Ultimately, the audience learn how all of these experiences tied into his experience during the outbreak of World War I and his grappling with loss and regret after the Great War has ended come to influence his famous Middle-Earth novels.
The strength of this film resides not in its storytelling, but in the performances conveyed by the actors onscreen as well as the visuals that infused magic with reality. Nicholas Hoult’s performance as the titular author helps us believe in the foundations of the brotherhood as well as his emotional struggle as he tries to decide between pursuing what he needs to rather than pursuing the woman that would inspire the strong women in his work. What also helps to keep the audience convinced that this author is capable of conjuring up magic within his everyday life is by seeing the work cinematographer Lasse Frank injects into each scene. By combining simple fantasmical elements with the reality that TOLKIEN occupies, we are able to see how certain ideas and daily moments influenced elements within the author’s work.
It is difficult not to feel the reverence for the author radiate in each scene. However, despite the love and respect both cast and crew had for TOLKIEN, the magic that the author and his work inspires sometimes seemed missing from the screen. How much of this has to do with the author’s estate’s influence or lack thereof in the production of this film, I’m not sure. But given how imaginative the author was, you can’t help but want more in terms of the fantasy elements featured throughout the course of the film that serves to show where his mind was wandering in the creative process.
Another element that I thought would have made the film end on a much more satisfying, magic-infused note was if they had chosen to end the film right at a certain shot signifying the climatic Battle of the Somme, a battle that ended up influencing the development of Mordor. With such a deeply dramatic shot, it would have the film end on a highly fantasmical note while also explaining the author’s life in the afterward post-that epic scene. As it is, I don’t think the film ends on an awkward moment in his life. I just think the ending would have carried more power if it had ended at that particular scene mentioned above.
TOLKIEN tells an abridged version of the famed author’s life that still aims to inform audiences of the influences within the author’s life. The film’s story helps to provide context for fans of the author’s work while also introducing the man to a whole new audience through a successful infusion of magical realism throughout the course of the story. While the movie does run long and could easily have ended just after the climactic final shot signifying the end of the author’s time during the Battle of the Somme, I do not think that audiences will struggle to get through the film as the flow adjusts post-War. For fans of TOLKIEN’s work, keep your eyes peeled for the Easter Egg references peppered all throughout the course of the film. There were references that even I missed, so you’ve been warned!
Fox Searchlight Pictures will release TOLKIEN in theaters tomorrow, May 10, 2019.