Tolkien is a new biopic about author J.R.R. Tolkien directed by Finnish filmmaker Dome Karukoski and starring Nicholas Hoult as the eponymous literary icon. The film tells the story of Tolkien’s formative years as he finds inspiration in the form of friends, love, and the war. It played at the 2019 Montclair Film Festival in an event that was also simulcasted nationally.
Tolkien is perhaps one of the world’s most celebrated authors, so a movie about his life sounds extremely promising and interesting. However, herein lies the film’s first issue — it isn’t about Tolkien’s entire life, instead opting to focus on his early years. Even though the story is still compelling, it likely would have been more interesting to see the more exciting part of his life. The film ends before his career takes off, and the latter part of his life is far more interesting than his movie years.
The film also doesn’t do an excellent job of developing its characters. Tolkien is likable enough because most people seeing this movie will already be a fan of his work, and he is relatively charming, but his arc in the film is relatively weak, and as such, he is not as compelling or round as he should be. All of the supporting characters are completely underdeveloped too, having bland and archetypal personalities.
Perhaps most frustrating was Tolkien’s love interest. The romantic subplot feels ridiculous and cheesy when compared to the rest of the movie, mostly because the relationship isn’t something you want to get behind. Edith Bratt, as portrayed in the film, is not a particularly interesting character, and the relationship she has with Tolkien is generic and thoroughly predictable. The movie would have been better as a whole had this part been cut out entirely.
That being said, despite all of its issues, the film is mostly entertaining. If you are a fan of Tolkien’s work and don’t mind a relatively conventional biopic, you will likely find this movie to be rather interesting. You may even end up learning something, as this part of Tolkien’s life isn’t usually discussed (that’s because it’s less eventful, though). It would have been nice to see more of his experiences in the war, but it still works as is.
The film is also successful on a technical level. For a modestly-budgeted biopic helmed by a director who did mostly indie work prior to this, the movie looks really good. The cinematography and production design do a solid job of periodizing the film and taking you back into the early 20th century. The visual effects during the war sequences are surprisingly strong. The score is awesome too, containing some pieces that are absolutely beautiful.
Nicholas Hoult does a solid job of portraying the Hobbit creator. The amount of charm and wit he brings to the character is much appreciated and makes the movie much more enjoyable than it would be if a less charismatic actor were in the lead role. On the other hand, his co-star Lily Collins isn’t particularly impressive. Her chemistry with Hoult simply doesn’t come across, and her turn feels very wooden and flat.
Overall, Tolkien was an enjoyable but flawed and straightforward biopic. Even though it never reaches the heights which it probably should, it is mostly agreeable and as such, could catch on with audiences.
Tolkien opens in theaters on May 10.