Having been besotted by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, I was eager to see this literary origin biopic, hoping to learn what sparked his imagination and passion – but it’s a dull disappointment.
His story begins in 1916 in the muddy trenches of World War I, where shell-shocked second lieutenant Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) is searching for a friend during the bloody Battle of Sommes, while imagining German flamethrowers as fire-breathing dragons.
A flashback reveals that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) – pronounced “toll-keen” – was orphaned, along with his younger brother. Penniless, they were entrusted to Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney), who enrolled them in King Edward’s School in Birmingham and settled them in the home of elderly, rich Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris).
That’s where shy Tolkien meets and falls in love with orphaned pianist Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), who introduces him to Wagner’s operas about “one ring to rule them all.” In turn, he charms Edith with his own invented language, a precursor of Elvish. So much for fanciful, foreshadowing Middle-earth parallels.
Alter winning a scholarship to Oxford, Tolkien finds three artistic/intellectual friends: Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney), Robert Quilter Gilson (Patrick Gibson) and Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle). These kindred spirits form a secret society called the T.C.B.S. – Tea Club and Barrovian Society – determined to “change the world through the power of art.”
Floundering in academia, Tolkien encounters philologist Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi), who permits him to study linguistics, warning that invented words must have meaning as well as music – exactly what Edith told him years earlier. By then, Tolkien’s plummy career path is set.
Working from a serviceable, if stodgy script by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, Finnish director Dome Karukoski has forsaken all fun to create an all-too-respectful, ethereal, lyrical bore.
Not surprisingly, Tolkien’s estate released a statement noting they “do not endorse it or its content in any way.” Understandably.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Tolkien” is a flaccid 5, a flimsy fellowship tale.