Dome Karukoski’s portrait of the life of JRR Tolkien provides a warm, emotional and well constructed biopic of a literally legend who never succumbed the trappings of fame or celebrity inherent with many of his modern contemporaries. With strong performances and beautifully rich cinematography, Karukoski dovetails the emerging fantasy world created by Tolkien against the realities of pre-First World War Britain, where opportunity was reliant on background and class.
There is inherent risk when recounting the life of literary figures such as Tolkien, that emphasis is placed on loose narratives that fail to explore the true nature of the creative genius. Tolkien at times falls into this trap, seeking to link too many early experiences with the eventual masterpiece that was Lord of Rings and the Hobbit. However, despite these flaws the film sores in its exploration of youth and learning against the backdrop of a devastating war. Identifying the violent loss of innocence and creativity war creates and the artistic impulse to translate those experiences into literary form.
Tolkien’s exploration of male friendship is strong, never seeking to undermine the power of youth and creativity among young men who believe in creating a better world through art
Set against the backdrop of the gruesome battle of the Somme in 1916, the film takes us on a journey through Tolkien’s early adolescence and formative years of study via flashbacks prior to the war. These explore the loss of his mother at a young age, his foster placement through the catholic church and study at King Edwards School in Birmingham. His school years building long lasting friendships that were ultimately changed forever by the onset of the First World War.
Tolkien’s exploration of male friendship is strong, never seeking to undermine the power of youth and creativity among young men who believe in creating a better world through art. However, this focus leaves little space for female characters to thrive, and despite the importance of his first love Edith (Collins) who went on to become his wife, women are notably absent from the narrative. There is also a prevailing sense of class and achievement through family wealth and position. While Tolkien himself does not fit into this model, this is a film that honestly suggests the important link of friends who could open doors of opportunity normally closed to those without position.
Performances are strong throughout, with Hoult, Collins, Gibson, Boyle and Glynn-Carney all putting in heartfelt and enduring character studies that express a true love of the themes the film portrays. These are combined with a nuanced exploration of love and friendship that is never afraid to explore love on its multiple levels in relationships built with both genders. Equally Tolkien shines in the beautiful cinematography of Lasse Frank Johannessen (Tom of Finland) who provides a rich deep colour to the film that glows with authenticity and imagination in equal measure.
The film has been disavowed by the Tolkien estate, however, this does not distract from a film that ultimately pays homage the man and his creative talents, making the Tolkien estates actions seem rather shallow and innocuous.
While not always perfect in execution; opting at times to try and link too many youthful experiences to the eventual publication of Lord of the Rings. Tolkien is a love letter to a creative genius that at times shines in its narrative. Providing a deeply emotional study of friendship and creativity and the ultimate destruction of innocence during war.