Portrait of the artist as a young man is a mixed bag
Once again, we discuss the trouble with biopics. Most life stories don't make for a tidy tale on film. And add an even greater degree of difficulty based on how known and beloved your subject matter is.
Dome Karukoski's “Tolkien,” the early story of Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, faces tough odds. It doesn't help matters that Tolkien's estate has stated that they don't endorse the film “in any way.”
Fans of Tolkien also may be expecting something more fantastic and imaginative, but “Tolkien” finds some fertile ground in its limited narrative.
The film focuses on some key periods in the formative years of the author's life, from his days as a young man (played by Harry Gilby) who was orphaned after the death of his mother.
As Tolkien finds his way to boarding school, he forges a unique friendship with three classmates that would play, according to the film, a key role in his future.
Earlier moments are interspersed with scenes of a grown Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) on the battlefields of World War I (with some foreshadowing of inspiration for his later work).
We see Tolkien as a student pushing to advance his natural talents through both his friends and instructors, and we seem him meet and fall in love with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins).
Karukoski is obviously trying to tell a lot here — even though it's all only the precursor to Tolkien beginning to work on “The Hobbit.”
As you might expect, not all elements here are equally successful.
I have a general rule that the best movie love stories have to be central if they're going to work. While Collins is a fine actress who makes the most of her moments, this aspect generally falls flat.
It's actually the formation of Tolkien's key band of friends that comes through the best. Some of the most effective moments of “Tolkien” evoke a “Dead Poets Society” vibe of what it's like to be both young and in a high-pressure academic situation.
Hoult is a fine choice for the lead, but Tolkien fans may be underwhelmed at the scope of insight here.
It's that usual balancing act of what makes a watchable film vs. a biography (which the Tolkien estate recommends you read instead). There's only so much you can get into.
Still, “Tolkien” is solid if unspectacular. Temper expectations accordingly, but it's a bookish option if superheroes aren't your thing.