Director: Dome Karukoski
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Patrick Gibson, Anthony Boyle, Tom Glynn-Carney, Harry Gilby, Albie Marber, Ty Tennant, Adam Bregman, Mimi Keene, Derek Jacobi
Between 2001 and 2003, director Peter Jackson gave the world his masterful vision of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and then between 2012 and 2014 Jackson gave us The Hobbit split into three films, bringing to life two of the most beloved stories the world has ever read. Thus, it was perhaps only a matter of time before someone decided to go behind the scenes and delve into the life of the author and discover who and what influenced his legendary stories. Enter Dome Karukoski, a Finnish-American director who has admired Tolkien since he was a young boy. Along with screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, Karukoski brings Tolkien’s story to the big screen. Does it provide a realistic glimpse into the mind of one of the world’s most famous authors, or is it just another blown-up biopic ‘loosely based’ on real events?
Covering mostly the younger years of the author’s life, we follow John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Hoult) through his late childhood, teenage years, his early twenties (in which he experienced The Great War), and a little later in life when his ideas for The Hobbit had begun to take shape. We see how his enduring friendship (or fellowship) with three boys in school and beyond helped influence characters in the Lord of the Rings, how his experience with the love of his life, Edith Bratt (Collins), inspired much of the dramatic romance of some of his imagined characters, and the lasting effects of what he was exposed to during his service in World War I.
Often, biopics are just exaggerated or partly fictitious versions of the life of an interesting celebrity or public figure. Sometimes their life was just not as interesting as people might think before they became well-known for whatever it is they are doing or have done. However, in the case of Tolkien, if you were to read up on the author’s history a lot of the movie is pieced together from direct quotes or letters he wrote, and so Karukoski’s story appears to (mostly) add up. Not entirely, of course, as some elements are heightened to give it that cinematic and emotive touch, but for the most part it seems to pretty much tell the tale of Tolkien, in spite of the fact his family and estate had nothing to do with the production, with not even their approval given. Bit of a risky game to play, but from an audience perspective it has paid off.
The group that the young Tolkien formed with his three brother-like friends, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (T.C.B.S), became the core of his formative years, and the emotional relationship formed amongst the young men shone marvellously onscreen, alongside his tumultuous relationship with the beautiful and strong Edith. Tolkien’s experience in war seems like it might have been overstated, as apparently in truth he took ill quite often whilst in action and was eventually sent back to England as a result, however Karukoski made it quite clear that what Tolkien saw whilst at the Somme highly influenced the villainous and negative aspects of his writing. It would be easy to see the way Karukoski represented Tolkien’s imagination as somewhat patronising, with the appearance of spectral figures that much resemble characters such as Sauron and the elves and orcs, but it could also be a glimpse into his state of mind. Imagining such characters could have been what kept the man sane during a time in which he could easily have lost his mind, like so many people did. Partner this direction and writing with wonderfully engrossing performances and, whether accurate or not, the result is pure cinema, and the audience are pulled into a beautiful and distressing story.
Nicholas Hoult has come a long way since his Skins days, through the likes of Warm Bodies and the X-Men series to more out-there choices such as his recent role in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. He’s certainly proving himself as quite the versatile actor, yet Hoult’s representation of Tolkien is modest at worst and thoughtful at best. He keeps a lot behind the eyes but it’s just enough to keep the audience engaged. He is often upstaged by co-star Lily Collins, her performance as Edith always captivating with something of a twinkle in her eye that possibly gives away the very reason Tolkien saw something magical in her. Collins’ own talents as an actor have also come a long way, and she really shines in this film. It’s also often something of a bug-bear to have a few teenage actors making their debut or second or third appearance in a big budgeted movie because much of the time they just don’t seem ready, their abilities and skills not yet as honed as they should be before taking on such a grand project. Having said that, all four boys who portray the young T.C.B.S lads are excellent, each of them showing real promise for their future careers. The same goes for the three actors portraying the young men’s older selves, each smoothly taking their younger personas and keeping the same relationship with each other as though they were the very same people in reality. Perhaps it is but a small thing to take note of, but it’s something that really aids in creating a believable story.
The framework of Tolkien is certainly not the most original way to tell a life story, but it’s surely preferable for a biopic to be as close to reality as possible without all the pomp and pageantry of overly-done cinematics. Perhaps Tolkien’s life wasn’t the most extraordinary, but it was the (often) ordinary circumstances married with unimaginable events (such as the death of loved ones and the war) that led to the creation of one of the most extraordinary fantasies. The standard scenes of upper-class English boys from the early 20th century running around boarding schools and/or Oxford is something we’ve seen much of in recent years (such as in Stephen Hawking’s own biopic, The Theory of Everything, and Alan Turing’s story in The Imitation Game) and is perhaps getting a little tired now, however it does help to transport audiences to a certain place and time that greatly inspired Tolkien and helped shape him as a man and author. It’s perhaps not going to be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re a fan of the Lord of the Rings, period-set movies and/or a completist, it’s certainly worth a watch. It will likely spark your own imagination and remind you of why you, and so many others, enjoy fantasy stories.