Club Tropicana

Film Review: Tolkien

19 May 19 words: Ian C. Douglas

A fan of The Hobbit? This film takes you back to where it all began.

DirectorDome Karukoski

StarringNicholas Hoult, Derek Jacobi, Lily Collins 

Running time: 112 mins

This movie opens in the trenches of World War One. Young JRR Tolkien is out of his mind with trench fever and embarks on a reckless quest. Then the narrative flashbacks to his early years and how those events shaped his epic novels.

We start with his orphaned childhood, through life at a public school and onto his undergraduate studies at Oxford. In a way, the film depicts a young man’s first loves. Tolkien’s love for languages, including his own made-up words. Tolkien’s love for his best friends. And his love for the feisty girl, who may be the love of his life. Or maybe not.

In the beginning, child actors play the great novelist and his bookish chums. They form the TCB Club, dedicated to changing the world through art. These young actors are excellent, bringing to life an otherwise dull segment of the film. Nottingham's Harry Gilby, who trains at the Television Workshop, is particularly convincing as Tolkien junior. 

Nicholas Hoult takes over the grown-up role. Tolkien falls for Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), but the course of true love gets quickly into trouble. Worse, he fails his exams and runs out of money. If only he had some talent that could get him a scholarship, like, say, a penchant for ancient languages? And if that’s not enough for any protagonist to handle, War is declared. So, Tolkien and his chums go marching off to battle. Who will survive to the last reel?

Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. And this is a good story.

It is obvious to say World War One haunted the imagination of every creative spirit to endure the endless mud and blood. You can see it in James Whale’s set design for the Frankenstein movie. You can see it in war artist Paul Nash’s paintings, cleverly recreated in this movie. The recent biopic of A.A. Milne covered the same vein.

Frodo and Sam’s trek to desolate Mordor was always about the trenches. When they find the marsh of drowned bodies, Tolkien is channelling tortured memories. The movie mirrors this with Tolkien’s mad hunt for his beloved schoolmate, Geoffrey Bache Smith, missing in action. Guess what, a working-class private insists on accompanying Tolkien to keep him safe. The young man’s name? Sam.

The heart of the movie is Tolkien’s suicidal lurch over the top, desperate to find Geoffrey. We witness mass murder; gas, machine guns, soldiers blown to bits, but projected onto this carnage are wraiths, dragons and warriors from Lord of the Rings. Extremely well done, and very moving. Blink and you’ll miss a crucified Christ.

Nicholas Hoult is outstanding as Tolkien and keeps the dryer scenes afloat with his acting chops. The director is Dome Karukoski, of Tom of Finland fame. Surprisingly, then, Dome keeps the homo-eroticism on a tight leash. The only moment it rears its head is when Geoffrey speaks to Tolkien of his unrequited love. He stares at Tolkien with such teary eyes, we are left in no doubt whom he actually loves.

Just how factual is any of this? Not so much, apparently critics say. But then, never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. And this is a good story, even if the plot lacks any real twist. The classy understated style of its film-making is superb.                   

Did you know? This is Nicholas Hoult's second outing as a famous author, having previously portrayed J.D. Salinger in Rebel in the Rye

Tolkien is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 23 May

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