Dome Karukoski’s portrait of the life of JRR Tolkien provides a warm, emotional and well-constructed biopic of a literary legend while honouring a man who never succumbed to the trappings of fame or celebrity. With solid performances and beautifully rich cinematography, Karukoski (Tom of Finland) dovetails the emerging fantasy world created by Tolkien against the realities of pre-First World War Britain. While equally reflecting the fact that opportunity was reliant on background and class in Imperial Britain.
There is an inherent risk when recounting the life of literary figures such as Tolkien, which leads to an emphasis on loose narratives that fail to explore the true nature of creative genius. Tolkien, at times, falls into this trap, seeking to link too many of his early experiences with the eventual creation of Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. However, despite these flaws, the film does soar in exploring youth and learning against the backdrop of a devastating war. Here the violent loss of innocence and creativity during war is dovetailed with the artistic impulse to translate those experiences into literary form.
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Set against the backdrop of the Somme in 1916, the film takes us on a journey through Tolkien’s early adolescence and formative years of study via flashbacks. These explore the loss of his mother at a young age, his foster placement through the catholic church and his eventual study at King Edwards School in Birmingham. His school years, helping to build a series of long-lasting friendships that would ultimately change him forever.
However, Tolkien excels in exploring male friendship and bonding while embracing the power of youth and creativity. However, this focus also leaves little space for female characters to thrive, and despite the importance of his first love and wife Edith (Collins), women are absent from the narrative. Equally problematic is the prevailing sense of class as a driver for achievement and opportunity. Of course, we know this to be a reflection of the time, yet it often feels celebratory despite the darkness of the story surrounding it.
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Despite these weaknesses, performances are strong throughout, with Hoult, Collins, Gibson, Boyle and Glynn-Carney offering us heartfelt character studies that explore the nature of male love and friendship. Equally, Tolkien shines in the beautiful cinematography of Lasse Frank Johannessen, who delivers rich deep colours that glow with authenticity and imagination. Now at this point, I have to point out that Tolkein has been disowned by his estate, a strange choice given its homage to the man and his creative talents.
While not always perfect in execution, at times opting to link too many youthful experiences to the eventual publication of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien is a love letter to a creative genius.
Director: Dome Karukoski