Overall, I tend to find it difficult for movies and TV series to capture the reality of someone’s life within a couple of hours or even a couple of seasons.
This is primarily because a story has to be told about said person’s life that is going to be captivating enough to hold the audience’s attention and satisfy their quench for solid entertainment.
I believe that this is a factor that both helps and hurts the latest biopic to hit movie theaters about epic fantasy writer, Master J.R.R. Tolkien (- of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit’s fame.)
Tolkien (pronounced Tol-keen -as is annunciated out in the film) is a good yet wavering biographical film that falls short of being an epic biopic film in the likes of Malcolm X, Walk the Line, or Hidden Figures.
This is because of an inherent difficulty that was posed to the creators from the inception of the project.
Tolkien is an author.
Although Master Tolkien lived a difficult life, having lost his mother at a young age and having survived WWI, it is the calm mundanity of his story that is the real catalyst of Tolkien’s genius.
That is not to say that his tumultuous times didn’t impact his art in any way shape or form.
The movie does an amazing job of portraying Tolkien’s relationship with his mother, who fueled his passion for mythologies and even influenced his handwriting associated with styles of Middle Earth.
The film; however, mainly focuses on two different aspects of his life: his romance with his wife Edith Bratt, and his Tea Room Club friends from his youth.
I deem this to be problematic in the film for two reasons.
First, the stories are competing story lines that barely interact with each other and provide conflicting tones in the film.
Rather than survey the life and accomplishments of the master author, Gleeson and Beresford’s script focused on the developmental aspects of his youth, forcing the screen time to be shared between his interactions with his friends and Edith.
Each story line provides different tones of what’s going with the characters. Every time Tolkien is with his friends, there is a lighthearted comedic quality that is expressed with witty banter and a random dance sequence.
With Edith, we see various emotions coming from Tolkien, ranging from love to jealousy. Keep in mind that this is also done with a framing device of Tolkien in trench warfare getting feverish during terrible attacks (as almost a commentary on war), which culminates in reuniting with Edith.
It’s almost as if there are different personalities in this film…..
My second issue with the movie is that it glances over the humdrum of his daily life.
Remember, Tolkien was a writer, philologist, and professor. He read and wrote a lot, creating languages and composing the most insane details that you could possibly come up with in world building. (The man literally created his own measurements – like the metric system- for Middle Earth)
That is what is appealing about Tolkien. It’s his attention to detail and absolute devotion to his craft, along with the fact that he was able to hold a full-time job and raise a family, all with a pipe and a curious smile on his face.
Tolkien was widely devoted to his work. He drew phenomenal maps – both geographic and contours maps (which also serve as fantastic art pieces) for each of his different stories, wrote intricate genealogical lists and histories, and created languages with legitimate grammatical rules for different species within Middle Earth.
He also infamously fought with his publishers over the books being split into three smaller novels, as well as the design of his book covers.
Not to mention that he also had a life changing friendship with CS Lewis.
All these interesting factoids are completely skipped over in the film, as it ends with Tolkien returning home and acclimating back into his life, all while reconnecting and eventually marrying Edith.
This, of course, is very difficult to film, which could explain why they focused on Tolkien’s friendships and love life rather than him at the peak of his literary career. Granted, who wants to watch someone type and read for an hour and a half straight.
To counter that, the director, Karukoski, could have explored these moments with some imagination and intrigue, using abstract imagery and surreal experiences as a counter to filming a period piece undertone in the film.
However, the movie is still worth a watch.
The cinematography and visuals are well done also.
The movie uses a framing device of Tolkien in the trenches of WW1 for about 75% of the film, which had the most vivacious visuals.
Here, his military guide Sam (reference guys!) is trying to guide a feverish Tolkien out if the trench during gas attacks. Every time there is a gas mask, a visual reminiscent of the Nazgul appears on the battlefield. This is about the most surreal that the movie gets.
Imagery of a knight in shining armor, reminiscent of Aragorn or Isildur, also makes an appearance.
Overall, the movie is decent enough to watch and will definitely inspire hardcore Tolkien fans to pick up a book or pen, but not the three part biopic that it could have possibly been.
Grade: B –