As the creator of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” a bio-picture about J.R.R. Tolkien would seem to be a creative gold mine, yet that isn’t the case with “Tolkien.”
Instead of giving the audience insight into Tolkien’s creativity, writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford and director Dome Karukoski crafted a film that falls victim to too many tropes in the bio-picture genre – a by-the-numbers retelling of Tolkien’s life that never really delves into the man the way it should.
“Tolkien” begins with the writer (played by Nicholas Hoult) in the trenches during World War I and then proceeds via flashbacks to events leading up to that moment – losing his mother at an early age and finding his voice with a group of friends during his days at prep school.
The film also devotes a lot of time to his romance with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a relationship that some closest to Tolkien didn’t approve of.
The biggest problem with “Tolkien” is that it lacks originality – with even the more interesting moments feeling like they were lifted from better movies.
Tolkien’s friendship with fellow students – with the group developing a literary club – feels a lot like “Dead Poet’s Society.”
Those scenes at least give a little insight into how Tolkien became a writer. The scenes between Tolkien and Bratt don’t provide the same insight, although Hoult and Collins have good chemistry that at least makes these moments tolerable.
“Tolkien” also struggles with the back-and-forth time structure. It seemed like every time the film had something interesting to say and had finally found its footing, Karukoski made the mistake of flashing back or flashing forward, breaking any momentum.
Most of the time, it is going back to the battle scenes – which include the use of imagery meant to give the impression that Tolkien was seeing his future work in his head through all the bloodshed. But that inclusion feels forced, and in a way a cheat to anyone looking for real insight into how he created some of his most beloved literary works.
Sadly, those forced scenes, and a few breadcrumbs thrown in throughout, are about as close as the audience gets to truly getting a feel for how Tolkien created his stories. Only in the final moments do we start to get a feel for how works like “The Lord of the Rings” were created, but it’s way too little, way too late.
I wanted to like “Tolkien” more than I did, and some fans of his work will be satisfied with this film. There may be enough here for the hardcore fans, but for those with casual interest, “Tolkien” has the feel of a movie that is fine for what it is – but has a much better movie buried under the surface.