The film stars Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, and Derek Jacobi and is about the early life of the man who would write such classic books as The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and more.
A red cape flutters on the air as an operatic overture plays. Pale feathers guide your eyeline to match a young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s as he watches his future wife, Edith Bratt, dance lithely around him with a large brass ring in hand. They cannot afford tickets to the opera, so they hide in the props storage beneath the stage and tell the story to themselves as the movie plays. They are in love, and as the camera pulls slowly away, we see them as if from very afar. Unrushed, unashamed, kissing and laughing and fully alive.
This is a very patient film.
It switches deftly back and forth between a present tense amidst the horrors and desperation of World War I and the very storied younger years of Ronald Tolkien’s life. There is a delicate elegance with which the music and imagery glide from one context into the next. Like the passage of time, much of this film feels fluid – it dances across the screen, and follows a rhythm like poetry.
Much to my surprise, this biopic focuses on quiet, formative character moments much more so than spectacle. Though we see much of Ronald’s strife, we also see so much beauty, because that is what he saw, in spite of the struggles that life gave him. In his relationship with Edith, but perhaps more so in his fellowship with four very dear friends, Tolkien saw and brought beauty as often as possible. As a result, this movie communicates and displays a poetic kind of loveliness, throughout.
Tolkien also takes place firmly within the boundaries of reality, contrary to what the trailer might have you believe. When you see flashes of Sauron, Black Riders, or dragons, they always occur when Ronald is feverish or in the midst of panic and shock. This is used to great effect, because we can easily see the moments where Tolkien’s fantasies were informed by his experiences, but we can also identify the ways in which his stories may have influenced the way he saw the world during his tumultuous life. The film does this without making claims to any specific meanings for his works, which is important. It asserts clearly and more than once that the great beauty we find in words (and stories) comes from the multiplicity of meanings they inherently contain. A word like “tree,” “hand,” or “oak” is not beautiful because it sounds so, nor because it means only one thing. It is beautiful because of all that it can mean.
There’s a moment early on in the film when the four TCBS members are talking in circles about the nature of parenthood and keeping children in line with a stick. One of the boys, Robert, can’t place what the stick in their scenario is – is this the stick, or is that? Fittingly, Christopher replies with fervor that the stick isn’t anything, and he needs to let go of the idea of mapping a specific meaning to it. The stick is merely a metaphor, and not a direct allegory.
Such is the case with Tolkien’s fantasy writing which he repeatedly said, over the course of his life, was not allegorical. With this in mind, it is wonderful to see how lovingly the movie uses imagery and emotive visuals to convey moments where things might have been inspired or informed by his stories, or vice versa, without making allegorical definitions for the stories themselves.
Viewers looking for a one-to-one journey through Tolkien’s life that matches the quest to destroy the ring will only be disappointed, and rightly so. This movie takes a much more sophisticated look at the life and resonance of this author and is better experienced as a eulogy and a love letter than as a story of intrigue or a commentary on war. One of the most poignant moments comes from Ronald and his wife teaching his children to talk to the trees. It’s a subtle but honest tribute to the kind of man Tolkien was, rather than a rehashing of his publishing history.
Nicholas Hoult turns out a fantastic performance as the man, and both Lily Collins (as Edith Bratt) and Anthony Boyle (as Geoffrey Bache Smith) should be praised for stellar jobs as well. Perhaps, however, the best work here is done by director Dome Karukoski and writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, who tackled a very difficult figure to make a film about. What they have made is something truly special, and it doesn’t seek to impress action-hungry viewers so much as it rewards those who are ready to be told a story in any language the author pleases.