TOLKIEN. Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi. Directed by Dome Karukoski. 112 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and violence).
A coming of age tale about Middle Earth creator and best-selling fantasy author, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, ‘Tolkien’ delivers a healthy dose of fan service wrapped in a handsome period drama. It’s remarkable just how closely the events of the legendary writer’s life parallel those seen in countless similar dramas set in the early 20th century, at least in as far as they’re presented here. From the poor orphan finding his feet at an elite private school to the band of friends torn apart by the Great War to the promise of a forbidden romance, his story hews very closely to the requisite period formula. On this front, then, there’s nothing in Tolkien’s story that we haven’t seen before. However, the familiar elements are well-constructed and acted, and the power of his eventual literary opus lends extra weight to the story.
The opening scenes take viewers from a flash-forward to the hellish Battle of the Somme back to the leafy greenery of Tolkien’s youth in Sarehole Mill, establishing a contrast that already evokes and the journey of his eventual hero, Frodo. After the deaths of his parents, a young John Ronald (Harry Gilby) and his little brother Hilary (Guillermo Bedward) are moved from Sarehole Mill to the smog-shrouded city of Birmingham. Catholic priest cum father figure, Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney, likably tough love), finds the boys a wealthy benefactor called Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris), and they soon start their education at St. Edward’s.
There, the clever, book loving John Ronald quickly falls in with a few other smart lads, each with their own budding cultural pursuits: poet Geoffrey Smith (Adam Bregman), composer Robert Gilson (Albie Marber), and artist Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant). In their favourite after-school haunt, they form the Tea Club and Burrovian Society (or the T.C.B.S.), vowing to change the world through the power of art. The young cast is uniformly great, crafting believable friendships with loads of zip – they genuinely appear to really enjoy one another’s company, forming a solid basis upon which their fellowship can grow.
Eventually, the young men go their separate ways to their tertiary studies. At Cambridge, the grown-up John Ronald (now played by Nicholas Hoult) comes under the tutelage of philology Professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi, wonderful), who is impressed by his inventiveness and grasp of linguistics. Tolkien’s appreciation of the classics and of the power of language fuel his creative writing, and audiences will get a special thrill from the knowledge of where his talents will one day take him. Despite their separation, the T.C.B.S. remains close, converging regularly to share their works and other adventures. When the Great War breaks out, John Ronald, Geoffrey, Robert and Christopher (the latter trio now played by Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson and Tom Glynn-Carney respectively) all enlist and are shortly deployed.
The film cuts back and forth between Tolkien’s formative years and his experience as a Lieutenant in France, where, suffering in the grip of trench fever, he and his batman, Private Sam Hodges (Craig Roberts), undertake their own quest to locate Geoffrey Smith in the trenches of the Somme. Thankfully, no effort is made to render Tolkien a war hero; rather, he is a fortunate survivor. It’s in these feverish, apocalyptic wartime sequences that we get the most explicit references to Tolkien’s works; a German flamethrower becomes a fire-breathing dragon, while an impossibly tall figure with glowing amber eyes lumbers across the battlefield. These fantasy elements are smoothly ushered into the real world through Paul Carter’s bold sound design and cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannessen’s woozy visuals, not to mention the great Thomas Newman’s score, which makes clever use of the natural association between the flute and the fantasy genre.
But it’s not all platonic and fantastical in Tolkien’s life; before his deployment, a maturing John Ronald realises that his relationship with Mrs. Faulkner’s other young charge, Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), may err more toward the romantic side. Despite Father Morgan’s protests and her engagement to another man, the pair cannot resist their attraction, and it’s with visions of her in his head that Tolkien eventually leaves to fight in France. Hoult and Collins sparkle together on screen, and the screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford gives them a charming, likable romance that forces them to overcome the requisite hurdles. At times, the movie’s adherence to its period influences can render its drama a little polite, and its fantasy references can be somewhat heavy-handed, but it’s an adaptation that successfully bridges the divide between a biography and a basket of Easter Eggs for avid Tolkienists.
Director Dome Karukoski has produced a well-crafted film in its own right, but it ultimately draws its greatest power from the knowledge of what Tolkien is yet to create; the mere utterance of the word “fellowship” certainly commanded the hairs on the back of my neck to stand to attention. It’s a common observation made of films adapted from books that, whether intended as a compliment or critique, they made viewers want to revisit the source material. With ‘Tolkien’, there is no such original to return to. Instead, it makes you want to return to the ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Tolkien’s other works set in his deeply complex creation, Middle Earth. There’s just something special about the tender friendships between the boys, the bleeding of Tolkien’s imagination into his harrowing war experiences, his mastery of language and philology, his romancing of Edith via an outing to see Wagner’s Ring Cycle; they all evoke elements of Tolkien’s works such that you want to go back and explore his worlds all over again. And I intend that observation as a high compliment.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out June 13.
20th Century Fox.