Movie Review: "Tolkien:" A Tale of Friendship
What kind of mind thinks up a hobbit?
Fantasy is a glorious genre because of its vastness — imaginary creatures, epic lands, fantastical civilizations, great battles. But without an anchor in something palpable, fantasy can fly off its tracks and turn puerile. The new film “Tolkien” attempts to reveal the singular genius behind “Lord of the Rings,” the man who made Middle Earth feel like a homeland worth defending and its inhabitants like heroes. It’s a lovely, if imperfect, picture of the man and well worth a view.
Finnish director Dome Karukoski has produced a warm, nostalgic picture of pre-WW1 Britain, where times were hard and tea was good. Suffering the concussive heartbreak of losing one parent then the other, young J.R.R. Tolkien (Harry Gilby) becomes a ward of the Church, and sent with his younger brother to live with a wealthy benefactress. His early days in an exclusive school for boys with promise are expectedly awkward, but turn sweet as his friendship with Robert, Christopher and Geoffrey becomes an adolescent alliance. They form the T.C.B.S., or Tea Club, Barrovian Society, and this bond forms the heart of the movie, following the four in their evolution from gawky middle-schoolers to young men of ability. From the first image of the pipe-smokey Barrow Stores, the tea shop speaks of lavish creativity unencumbered by responsibility and adulthood, with deep leather chairs, scuffed coffee tables, and pots of tea that support the growing affinity the boys have for one another and their individual ambitions. These are gorgeous scenes. The future is thrilling in its uncertainty, and the kinship is palpable.
These four young men are inextricably linked.
Sadly WW1 comes calling, and the futures of the four are forever altered. Changed, too, is Tolkien’s relationship with Edith Bratt (beautifully played by Lily Collins), an orphan who boards in the same home, and whom he grows to love. The common experience of Tolkien and Edith and their growing affection provides the other through-line of the film, and produces more lush scenes of the bucolic pre-war countryside.
The film is well-paced, and the acting is solid. Nicholas Hoult as the adult Tolkien is wonderful and Derek Jacobi is impeccable as Professor Wright. The sets are evocative — one of my favorites being Tolkien’s mood board, the wall above his desk covered in renderings of elvish letters and sketches of outlandish creatures. It’s a great guess as to what the author may have visualized as he felt the first mental rumblings of Middle Earth, and I wanted to hit “pause” so I could see all the details. The progression, over years, of young, quiet, bookish Ronald into an unusually gifted creator of language was so effective, it made me wonder if an imagination or intellect of his kind is even producible in our current era of smart phones and streaming video. And the WW1 battlefield scenes are appropriately wrenching as we watch the boys turn to men and their optimism to bleak realism
Conspicuous in its absence is the foundational Christian faith that framed Tolkien’s worldview.
As much as I appreciated seeing the different facets of his developing intellect, the exclusion of his Catholicism is silly. Tolkien was devout, as any elementary reading of his work, or the testimony of his friends, reveals. I wasn’t looking for anything heavy-handed, but the omission of faith was confounding and made me distrust slightly the overall picture painted of the man. It’s a significant misstep.
Though beset by sadness and tragedy, what a fortunate man J.R.R. Tolkien was to have enjoyed the close companionship of the four T.C.B.S boys and, later in life, the collaboration of the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, et al). This perhaps, is the film’s best contribution to our understanding of the man, who rose as a singular talent but who was buttressed by fine colleagues at critical junctures. For any Middle Earth fan or Tolkien aficionado, the film will provide some revealing background you’ll be glad to discover.
4 stars out of possible 5