Putting an entire life to film is a hard task, especially someone with a sprawling legacy like J.R.R. Tolkien. Director Dome Karukoski’s smartest decision was to focus this biographical romp on the early years of the famous author’s life, managing to make something tight, charming, and unexpected, even if it can be a little schmaltzy.It’s good to head into Tolkien with the knowledge that the minds behind the film are all huge Tolkien fans. Karukoski has spoken about how he had wanted to adapt The Lord of the Rings, and at the movie’s recent WonderCon panel the cast and creators all gushed about the writer. So if you’re looking for an objective warts-and-all biography then this likely isn’t for you, but if you want a sweet, often fantastical story about love, creativity, and friendship then Tolkien will probably win you over.

Period drama can often feel stale, and one of the film’s flaws is that it doesn’t challenge some of the more tired aspects of the genre–there are few women and no people of color–but by centering on the author’s college years and time as a soldier in World War I, Karukoski presents something that feels akin to a shoujo anime. There’s a scarcity of stories about male friendship where men love each other unashamedly, but that’s the message at the core of Tolkien. As J.R.R. and his beloved friends lounge around on mounds of pillows and read each other poetry, it often feels as if you’re watching a yaoi adaptation of the writer’s life.

Tolkien Gallery

After being displaced as a child, Tolkien and his brother are forced to move to Birmingham where he meets the so-called Tea Club and Barrovian Society, his lifelong best friends. Just like The Fellowship of the Ring, this is a story about chosen family, and the boys that he chooses are all fellow creative types: Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney), G.B. Smith (Anthony Boyle), and R.Q. Gilson (Patrick Gibson.) The group’s lofty goal is to change the world through art, and with each of them passionate about a different area of creative expertise they spend many nights drinking tea and debating the merits of literary writings, artists, and composers.

The reason these moments and relationships are key is that the film’s main thesis is that the writer’s close friendships and the boys’ experiences in war were the basis and inspiration for Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings series. Karukoski brings that analogous edge to everything here with much made of J.R.R.’s experiences in the war representing and inspiring Mordor, and his future wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) and her similarities to the yet-to-be invented elvish folk of his famed fantasy writings.

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With a soft lens and an eye for pretty framing, Karukoski throws the audience into the early 1900s setting as Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) survives prep school before heading off to the hallowed halls of Oxford, which is, of course, all lush green lawns and towering spires. The themes of nature and beauty run throughout the film and play as a striking juxtaposition to the horrors of war which often invade the screen. This split is one of the film’s strengths, as any time that the rose-tinted romance of Oxbridge or the author’s burgeoning love life gets to be too much, a sequence centering on the brutality of life in the trenches cuts right through it.

The cast is enjoyable to watch and the camaraderie between Hoult, Glynn-Carney, Boyle, and Gibson is obvious. Collins is great as Edith, who constantly challenges Tolkien and pushes him outside of his comfort zone, even when he leaves to go to Oxford and it seems like all is lost for the pair who grew up in the same boarding house. Alongside the relationships that changed him, Karukoski focuses in on the writer’s talent for linguistics and creation of new worlds and words. Though audiences may not get a lot of direct references to Middle-earth, they’re treated to plenty of formative moments that helped Tolkien to create the expansive fantasy world that he’s best known for.



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