After watching Tolkien, one wonders what the estate of the famed writer – which strongly distanced itself from the biopic by Danish director Dome Karukoski long before it was even released – would make of the project after seeing it. The disavowal suggested they knew something we didn’t, something scandalous, something that would upend a legacy. Instead we get something where the biggest complaint is that it’s so middle of the road, so middlebrow, so inoffensive, unsurprising, and pedestrian. Like almost every other biopic of a famous writer before it (except for maybe Capote and My Left Foot) it’s almost the definition of a forgettable film, one that you’ll just answer “It was fine” when someone asks you how it was.
It’s most sacrilegious to the cult of Tolkien in the way it downplays the breadth of the artistic genius that lead him to create some of the most influential fantasy stories of all time. It boils down his literary imagination and creations into things directly influenced and inspired by exact events throughout his formative years. The story flashes between Tolkien’s school years and his time fighting in the First World War, his life conveniently tied to the ‘hero’s journey’ that would form the basis for his writings and countless later fantasy stories: the orphan who goes on a quest, who enters a strange new world, finds foes, friends and love, and discovers magical powers that set them apart (the magic of language!).
Almost everything on screen can be tied back in some way to something in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, with an elbow in the ribs like subtlety. Here’s the shire-like countryside he has to leave; there’s a wise old Gandalf-like professor; here’s an unfalteringly supportive friend called Sam that helps him on a quest (through the trenches of the Somme); there are fire-breathing villains that turn out to be flamethrowers rather than dragons; and, of course, here’s a fellowship of friends that will change his life.
These retconned references aside, the film follows the same path as any number of paint-by-numbers biopic, struggling to get you to invest in the journeys of public school boys railing against their parents and teachers for not allowing them to pursue artistic endeavours. The period details are exact, the look is wistfully turn of the century, Thomas Newman’s score wrings more emotion than the script merits, and the performances, from stars Nicholas Hoult (as Tolkien, most affecting in a closing scene with the bereaved mother of his friend) and Lily Collins (love interest Edith), to the actors portraying their younger versions, are perfectly fine.
But that’s all it is, fine. You never sense any real point to it all. What is it really trying to say about Tolkien’s life and his creations? I couldn’t tell you. And the pointlessness extends from there. There’s little reason to why some scenes drag on for ages while others are sharply edited; why some biographical points are skipped over (like the death of his influential mother) or totally ignored (his devout Catholicism, or his delayed enlistment), when an exploration of Tolkien’s true love of language is dangled and discarded in favour of other seemingly superfluous plot points (like a school chum standing up to his father) that are laboured upon.
Now that Disney has take over Fox Searchlight it’s increasingly unlikely that mid-budget, audience-unsure films like Tolkien will get made any more. The suits would take one look at the script and the budget and pass. In this case they’d be right.
Tolkien is in cinemas from 13th June through 20th Century Fox.