How much do we really want to know about the authors behind our favorite stories? The conventional wisdom would suggest that what writers wrote is more interesting than who they were, with Finding Neverland a notable exception (depending on whether you give Shakespeare in Love any credit for actually being about Shakespeare).
Tolkien stars Nicholas Hoult as Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien. It’s Hoult’s second crack at the genre, having also played young JD Salinger in the critical and commercial flop, Rebel in the Rye, whose title alone should’ve been enough to torpedo the project. The obvious pitfall of the form is that it tends to have that one awful but inevitable scene, of the protagonist dreamily watching someone do something Hobbit-esque while chewing on a pencil and suddenly shouting, “Aha!”
The inspiration process… well, it doesn’t always film well. Tolkien, from Finnish director Dome Karukoski, largely skirts that cliché, though Hoult’s young future author does mutter “…a fellowship” to himself at one point. Instead, the bulk of the story is concerned with young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and his journey from the orphaned ward of the Catholic Church to scholarship boy at Exeter and Oxford, falling in love with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) along the way, and getting sent off to fight in the trenches in WWI.
A scene set in those hellish trenches, featuring Tolkien trying to navigate mustard gas clouds and stagnant disease puddles as a hallucinated dragon flaps through the mist (Smaug of war, get it?), frames the flashbacks to his school days. It’s notable that in this WWI frame, JRR’s greatest hour of need, he screams not for his dead mother or even his fiancee and childhood love but for his school chum, Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle).
Ahh, intriguing! But how much to read into this choice? Is this why the Tolkien estate disavowed the film? Could it be that the author of one of the great homoerotic relationships in English literature — between Frodo and Sam — found inspiration in a male-on-male dalliance of his own?
Sadly, Tolkien is just as content to hint, imply, and couch its homoeroticism in the traditional (homoerotic) rites of English adolescence as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films were. GB Smith (played by Adam Bregman in his younger incarnation) is as slavishly devoted to his crush and as apparently asexual as Sam Gamgee was. The implication that Smith is actually in sexual love feels stronger here, but the man-crush is still a bit of a Rorschach.
Why not make it more explicit? If you’re just going to hint and imply some more, why make this movie? Tolkien isn’t especially bad or dull, but it’s just as sexually repressed as the early 20th century English folk it depicts.
Mostly Tolkien takes the shape of a sort of pre-WWI Dead Poets Society, in which young Tolkien the church orphan discovers a new kind of family in a gang of arts-obsessed schoolboys, one of whom will go onto become an actual dead poet. They play rugby and chase girls (sort of) and compliment each other’s poems and songs and discuss changing the world over tea. They have a rallying cry, a German word about a guardian of the underworld, “Hellhammer” or something to that effect, which is supposed to remind them to live boldly.
It’s a little offputting to hear brats of the elite spout a phrase that sounds like it starts with “heil,” but that aside, they’re precocious and painfully earnest and hopelessly intellectual and slightly obnoxious like young art students the world over. The effect is of seeing one’s own youth refracted through a prism of Downton Abbian circumstance.
The boys chafe at the strictures of their rigidly hierarchical society, though Tolkien isn’t as compelling a comment on the period as the aforementioned Downton. The material is there to make more of the inherent contradiction, of young Tolkien desperately wanting to belong to this lordly class, even though every interaction with his friends’ parents further proves that this class is made up of bigoted, deeply unhappy assholes. It lightly explores Tolkien’s fascination with linguistics (he famously invented his own languages), but doesn’t quite know what to do with it. There’s beauty and a certain innocence to Tolkien, but it’s a bit of a thematic muddle.
The love story between John Ronald and Edith, his fellow working-class kid, fares a bit better and largely achieves the kind of yearning and pining and love through impossible circumstances that Atonement attempted. Lily Collins plays a great ingenue. But Tolkien never quite weaves these separately compelling strands together into a unified whole. And if she’s so important why does JRR scream for Geoffrey when the chips are down? Is Tolkien sanitized or just blind to the movie it truly wants to be?