In 1937, J. R. R. Tolkien published The Hobbit, a groundbreaking fantasy novel set in a quasi-medieval magical world, launching his career as one of the most excitingly original novelists in history, creator of a stunningly complex world, complete with multiple languages and a full mythological background. Cue a distinguished academic career as an Oxford professor, a fabled friendship with fellow fantasy novelist C. S. Lewis and several more books, not least the Lord of the Rings, famously adapted into a wildly popular film series and translated into 38 languages.
How did he get there?
Tolkien, Dome Karukoski’s upcoming biopic starring Nicholas Hoult (About A Boy, The Favourite), follows the life story of a young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien from his schooldays to the end of the First World War, where he developed trench fever at the Somme but survived the majority of his peers. It aims to explain the literary and emotional influences on Tolkien and his work. The film begins, somewhat dislocatingly, with a fevered adult Tolkien stumbling through the trench hellfire to find his best friend pursued by an orderly who the real J. R. R. Tolkien, in a private letter in adulthood, implied became the basis of his Hobbit character Samwise Gamgee. Tolkien’s story unfolds through a series of flashbacks, from the death of his mother and his placement with his younger brother into the care of a wealthy, elderly Birmingham woman. After an unpleasant start at the elite King Edward’s School he forms fast friendships and a secret literary society with Geoffrey Bache Smith, Christopher Wiseman and Robert Quilter Gibson, son of the fearsome headmaster. Meanwhile, a burgeoning romance with fellow orphan Edith Bratt, altered by his undergraduate career at Oxford then disrupted by the outbreak of war, teaches John Ronald to examine more fully his emotional life both on and off the page.
Nicholas Hoult, star of several offbeat independent films but most recently as a dandyish supporting role in historical rollercoaster The Favourite, gives a stalwart, stolid, if occasionally unexciting, performance of John Ronald, and shows little physical emotion beyond a trembling lower lip reminiscent of a young Benedict Cumberbatch in Parade’s End. The scene of Tolkien’s drunken breakdown on the quad at Oxford in the arms of Geoffrey is a rare and moving exception. Lily Collins is an elegant and at times feisty love interest as Edith, a stark but ultimately sidelined reminder of the social repressions against not only Edwardian women, but Edwardian orphans.
The performances of Harry Gilby as the young Tolkien and Derek Jacobi as an eccentric philology professor are sure to be audience favourites, but who really stood out was Anthony Boyle, a Northern Irish actor just off the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, as Geoffrey Bache Smith. Smith’s character is gentle, tender, an aspiring poet; Boyle imbues him with a soft, almost Keatsian tremor but a strength of heart which makes his eventual death deeply moving. The implication that Smith loves Tolkien – something Boyle himself discussed in a recent interview with the London Evening Standard – is a compelling one, and the tentative glance at Hoult’s Tolkien when reciting his poetry (“One among you is tall and supple / Good to fight or to love beside”) carries emotive echoes of the Greek mythology inspiring the boys. His final letter to Tolkien from the trenches before battle praised the longevity of their friendship’s ideas and addressed him as “my dear John Ronald”.
The cinematography, despite glorious rolling shots of England’s green and pleasant land, could have benefited from an abandonment of sweeping Lord of the Rings-style CGI. The film’s structure, swinging between flashbacks and trench warfare, is occasionally disconcerting, but the narrow focus allows rich performance and detailing of overarching message of fellowship and love.
Tolkien overall enters cinemas as a moving and deeply enjoyable historical drama, aided by emotive acting and a commendable aim in exploring the writer’s early life.
Tolkien is already in cinemas in the United Kingdom and the United States.