The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings may be some of the most popular novels of the 20th century, but Dome Karukoski’s staid biopic about author JRR Tolkien is unable to translate any of magic or inspiration that captivated legions of fans across the world. However, anyone who enjoys watching public school boy ‘banter’ being thrown around over cups of tea are in for a treat.
Tolkien is played by Nicholas Hoult, recalling his formative years as a young orphaned boy and troubled academic at university, seen through the recollections of the author while serving as an officer during The Battle of the Somme. Scattered throughout is Middle Earth-type imagery merged into the murky mists of the battlefield to depict the horrors of war that influenced the darker elements of Tolkien’s writing. And like his books, the film centres itself on the enduring fellowship of friends made during his time at school.
Karukoski’s Tolkien is designed to fit perfectly into the traditional biopic template we’ve seen for many-a-year, ticking off the boxes in perfunctory style. Rather than detailing any of the artistry that went into creating Tolkien’s greatest works, we are treated to almost two hours of painfully slow and uninvolving storytelling. Aside from a dinner-date conversation with his childhood sweetheart, Edith Pratt, played by Lily Collins (with hardly any mention of the work she was set to do for women’s rights), and short conversations with philologist Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi), the unique languages that formed the backbone of Middle Earth seem strangely undervalued.
This is a film that sets out to achieve the very definition of being middle-of-the-road and firmly hits the bullseye. The performances are all ‘fine’ and DoP Lasse Frank's visuals are crisply shot to evoke the period settings. But as there is little to inspire the audience, you can only imagine how difficult it would be for the cast to elevate the material into anything beyond what we finally see on screen. Fans already interested in Tolkien’s history will fail to discover anything new, while newcomers to his life outside of the books will struggle to remain involved.
Karukoski wants to depict Tolkien as an outsider who struggled to gain acceptance due to his lack of class privilege. He lost his mother and father at an early age and was adopted with his younger brother (who seems to suddenly disappear after 30 minutes). But it’s a hard sell because the obstacles he faces never seem insurmountable and it’s impossible to believe that Tolkien is going to land anywhere else but firmly on his feet. The events of his life are of little interest; it’s his inner life that is sorely missing and the reason why his writing is loved by so many. Anyone looking for it here is bound to be sorely disappointed.
Tolkien opens in US theaters today.