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Sugar House Journal

Dan's Review: "Tolkien" Explores the roots of "Fellowship"

May 12, 2019 03h24 ● By Dan Metcalf

Nicholas Hoult, Patrick Gibson, Anthony Boyle, and Tom Glynn-Carney in Tolkien - © 2019 Fox Searchlight.

Tolkien (Fox Searchlight)

Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence.

Starring Nicholas Hoult, Harry Gilby, Lily Collins, Mimi Keene, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Boyle, Adam Bregman, Patrick Gibson, Albie Marber, Tom Glynn-Carney, Ty Tennant, Craig Roberts, Pam Ferris, James MacCallum, Guillermo Bedward, Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O'Reilly, Samuel Martin.

Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford.

Directed by Dome Karukoski.



Biographies are often problematic. Whether it be too many or not enough details, or an overabundance of “creative license” with respect to accuracy, biographical films more often than not require audiences to take them with a grain of salt, even if the production value is high (see: Bohemian Rhapsody). The latest such film is Tolkien, the story of the famed “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy and “Hobbit” author John Ronald Ruel Tolkien.

J.R.R. Tolkien is portrayed by two actors in the movie, first by Harry Gilby as a teenage boy and as an adult by Nicholas Hoult. The story concentrates on two important phases of Tolkien’s life: overcoming the death of both his parents while living at a boarding home with his younger brother Hilary (James MacCallum and Guillermo Bedward) under the stewardship of Catholic priest Father Morgan (Colm Meany). “Ronald” meets and befriends fellow orphan Edith (Lily Collins as an adult and Mimi Keene as a teen). While attending a private boys’ school on scholarship, Tolkien meets classmates Geoffrey (Anthony Boyle, Adam Bregman), Robert (Patrick Gibson, Albie Marber), and Christopher (Tom Glynn-Carney, Ty Tennant) and form the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS), named for the tea house where they often met to discuss life, love, and art. The quartet of boys grows into men, with Ronald falling in love with Edith. Ronald and Geoffrey attend Oxford, while Robert and Christopher opt for Cambridge. Ronald’s scholarship is in jeopardy when his grades falter and Father Morgan objects to Tolkien’s romantic relationship with Edith (who was Protestant). Ronald finds a new line of study in linguistics just before the breakout for World War I, which draws Tolkien and his pals into military service. Ronald rekindles his romance with Edith just before shipping out to the front, where death awaits many comrades. While trying to find Geoffrey in the trenches, Ronald reflects on his youth, struggles, love, and the stories that fill his imagination, including tales of dragons, armies, elves, dwarves, and hairy-footed heroes. After the war (which takes the lives of two TCBS members), Ronald returns to England, and raises a family with Edith.

Tolkien is not a standard biography, borrowing elements of fantasy, interwoven with real events (most of the film is fairly accurate to historical facts of Tolkien’s life). Even with strong performances from Hoult and Collins, the middle act of the movie tends to drag a little, much like a university lecture appreciated only by aficionados of the subject matter.

As a work of art, Tolkien also feels a little contrived, with a linear effect between the author’s life and the stories that made him famous, most notably the Lord of the Rings. This element feels forced, even though it might be appealing to Tolkien fans who really, really want to find more meaning between the man and his stories.

Even with these minor setbacks, Tolkien is an enjoyable film, especially if you’re a fan of Tolkien and his work.     


"Tolkien" Trailer