Biopic depicting the life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, aka J. R. R. Tolkien, who would become the author of ‘The Hobbit’, ‘The Lord of the Rings’, and ‘The Silmarillion’. We follow Ronald (Nicholas Hoult) from his childhood, when he befriends a group of other aspiring artists and writers, forming the Tea Club & Barrovian Society (TCBS), which would be a major influence on him. We see Tolkien fall in love with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) and join the English army during World War I.
For many, Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies had a big impact. Thus it feels fitting – if not slightly contrived – that from early on in ‘Tolkien’, we get hints of inspirations for his works, for example, the childhood countryside home that would become ‘Hobbiton’, his mother’s story of gold and dragons. It goes through the standard biopic stuff as he moves home, mother dies, and he starts school. Where it really picks up is when he starts to make friends at school as the story of a comradeship and fellowship that would shape Tolkien entirely takes hold.
The passion and enthusiasm of these young people’s pursuit of the arts, such as poetry and painting, over the more practical occupations advised by their parents, like law, makes for a charming narrative. In their club, they play games, discuss and debate, share ideas, display material they’re working on, send each other on dares, and mess about as young lads do. Pivotal to its appealing tone are the actors playing the young men. Hoult leads the charge as he continues his rising career, alongside Tom Glynn-Carney (‘Dunkirk’) and Irish actors Patrick Gibson (renowned for ‘The OA’) and Anthony Boyle (‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’). The actors playing the younger versions of the characters - Harry Gilby, Ty Tennant and Albie Marber - also prove impressive, while other Irish talent can be spotted in Colm Meaney as Father Francis Morgan and Genevieve O'Reilly as Geoffrey’s mother.
Another enjoyable element of the story is the relationship between Tolkien and Edith, which works not only because of the talent of the actors but the material they’re given. The couple don’t just fall all over, making googly eyes at one another, but engage in intellectual discussions on philosophy and literary theory. They pursue artistic interests together, making their own rendition of Wagner’s ‘The Ring Circle’ (another ‘LOTR’ influence) when they’re shut out of a performance of it. Later, the way Tolkien stifles Edith’s disagreement with his friends in an attempt to encourage debate is interesting. He wants to keep the two worlds separate. Another major influence on Ronald comes later when he finds a philology professor who shares his enthusiasm for and dedication to the importance of language and meaning. Their meeting comes just when things are really starting to look down for Tolkien.
Then there’s the pain, destruction and grittiness of war, which are also captured well. The opening scene which moves from a beautiful, fantasy, fiery battle to the real one of World War I is particularly striking. Interestingly, CGI is used sparingly but effectively for such sequences and looks better than you’d expect. All in all, ‘Tolkien’ makes for an enjoyable and interesting biopic which while not extraordinary, leaves you with a satisfying sense of comfort.