John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is arguably the greatest fantasy writer of the twentieth century. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion are amongst the finest works in the genre. His incredible success did not come easy, and was a result of several influential relationships. Tolkien is a biopic about his formative years from Finnish filmmaker, Dome Karukoski. It traces the author's life from early childhood as an impoverished orphan to an officer in bloody World War I. The film has a high production value, but is woefully uneven in its narrative. The meandering script lacks focus, perspective, and is dialogue heavy. The result is a good-looking film that struggles to be interesting.
We first meet J.R.R. Tolkien (Harry Gilby) as a boy in the rolling English countryside. His father recently deceased, John lived a poor but happy life with his mother, Mabel (Laura Donnelly), and younger brother, Hilary (Guillermo Bedward). Their mother was richly imaginative. She taught her children to love languages, literature, and storytelling. When tragedy struck again, the orphaned Tolkien brothers become wards of a priest (Colm Meaney). He convinces a wealthy matron, Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris), to house them and guide their upbringing.
The Tolkien brothers are sent to an elite boys school. Even though he was a poor orphan, John befriends three wealthy boys. They become inseparable friends, pushing each other to excel in the arts and life. Years later as a teenager, John (Nicholas Hoult) turns his attention to a fetching housemate. Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) was another ward of the rigid Mrs. Faulkner. John enchanted Edith and his mates. They were captivated by his made-up languages and vivid stories. As John struggled with his station in life and love for Edith, the onset of war shatters the innocence of youthful endeavors.
The script by David Gleeson (Cowboys & Angels) and Stephen Beresford (Pride) is too broad in its scope. Tolkien spreads time equally between three phases of J.R.R. Tolkien's youth. He's seen initially as a soldier in trench warfare, remembering his life as a boy, and then later as a teenager. The problem is that the film never takes a definitive viewpoint. Each section could literally be its own short film. The writers want to put Tolkien's history in context by going deep on the people around him. We end up with a lot of unnecessary dialogue and melodrama. The film suffers from multiple dull stretches. Director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) needed to fine-tune the narrative. Tolkien would benefit from a different edit.
A poetic approach by Dome Karukoski gets lost. Tolkien imagines fantasy elements throughout the film. He sees dragons on the battlefield. Smoke and dust form into Nazgul-esque warriors. The trees in his childhood forest intertwine like the dense Shire. It's creative, looks great, but becomes blasé with the plodding pacing. We can't embrace the fantasy imagery because it gets lost. This is especially problematic during the battle scenes, where the film constantly cuts away to filler conversations in his youth. Yes, we understand how important Tolkien's friends were to him. Karukoski beats that in with a hammer, detracting from the well-staged visuals.
Nicholas Hoult has less screen time than expected. The focus on the younger Tolkien takes up a sizable chunk of the film. There's nothing wrong with that, if the script and editing were better aligned. I actually found Tolkien's childhood far more interesting. Hoult and co-star Lily Collins also have poor chemistry. Their interaction feels mechanical. A key romantic scene becomes leaden from their lack of magnetism.
Tolkien gives you insight to the author's background, but not much else. It's a rote biography that unfortunately bores. Tolkien needed a more inspirational touch for the big screen. His family and estate has publicly distanced themselves from the film. They did not condone or were involved in the production. Maybe their participation could have shored up the faults. Tolkien is produced by Chernin Entertainment and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.