When J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate issued a statement objecting to Dome Karukoski’s dour new biopic about the “Lord of the Rings” writer’s formative years, they had yet to actually see the film. Odds are they never will, as Christopher Tolkien has made clear his frustrations over the way that contemporary pop culture has devoured his father’s legacy: “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of our time,” he told Le Monde in 2012. “The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.” That didn’t stop the estate from selling the rights to Tolkien’s signature fantasy saga when Amazon showed up with a $250 million check, but it’s hard to blame them for that.
Be that as it may, there’s a peculiar irony to the family’s pro forma objection to “Tolkien,” a modest period drama that affords the author his own low-key version of “Shakespeare in Love.” If the understandable concern was that this film — or any film like it — would bastardize its subject’s life for the sake of cheap entertainment, that fear has turned out to be largely unfounded: “Tolkien” doesn’t seem all that interested in providing any kind of entertainment.
A sedate portrait of the storyteller’s academic life, this buttoned-up little biopic cleaves rather close to the facts, with Stephen Beresford and David Gleeson’s screenplay devoting more attention to Tolkien’s fascination with ancient and fictional languages than it does to his forbidden romance with Edith Mary Bratt (an underwritten but compulsively watchable Lily Collins). Historians might balk at the subtle creative liberties that elude general audiences, but this film might as well be a Robert Caro book compared to the horseshit likes of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
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Of course, if “Tolkien” were a Robert Caro book, it wouldn’t be this boring. But there are worse things for a Tolkien biopic to be, especially one that displays genuine interest in the nerdy esoterica that inspired its subject. Should the author’s son happen to catch this on the telly one day, he might be surprised to find that it’s something of an antidote to the way his father’s essence has been flattened by the ravenous amnesia of modern content. While it still dilutes Tolkien’s memory by molding his life to the narrow dimensions of a middle-brow feature that’s too safe for the arthouse and too small for the multiplex, at least it does so in a sincere attempt to trace the etymology of Tolkien’s work, and to emphasize that where stories come from can be as meaningful as where they take us.
This portrait of the artist as a young man — Karukoski’s follow-up to 2017’s well-regarded “Tom of Finland” — hinges on a simple rhetorical question: What if J.R.R. Tolkien had been hot? Like, hot enough that it’s weird no one mentions it to him? Played by Nicholas Hoult, who wears a tweed school blazer as though it were an NFL jersey, sexy Tolkien is a gifted student who finds himself staring down the barrel of a war that he’d rather not fight. But before we get to the battlements, and the sketchy (if accurate) suggestion that the character of Samwise Gamgee was inspired by the batmen Tolkien met during his time as a soldier, the film first has to blow through Tolkien’s entire childhood.
The details of that childhood are undeniably compelling, even as cinematic CliffsNotes: Tolkien (the teenage version of whom is played by Timotheé Chalamet lookalike Harry Gilby) and his little brother are orphaned when their mother dies at 36 and leaves them in the care of the stern but kind Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney). The siblings are penniless, but John Ronald’s budding genius earns him a spot at the posh King Edward’s School, where the new student finds himself bullied by three interchangeable boys who will soon become his closest friends.
For all the time this movie spends on Tokien’s allegiance to Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle), and Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney) — a foursome of nerdy scoundrels who bonded over their mutual fondness for sneaking tea into the school library — these characters never blossom into their own. Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy wrings more personality from Sam, Merry, and Pippin in 20 seconds than “Tolkien” does from their supposed real-life equivalents in two hours. And while this film doesn’t go full “Shakespeare in Love” in how it uses its subject’s art to retcon the events of his life, some of the script’s clumsier attempts at drawing a connection between the two are truly painful.
“We should form a club,” one of Tolkien’s pals says. “A brotherhood.” Later: “This is more than just a friendship… it’s an alliance.” Eventually, it starts to feel as though “Tolkien” is suggesting that the author’s entire life was a search for a certain word, and that a quick look at a thesaurus could have spared him a lot of time. Needless to say, when he arrives at “fellowship” in the final moments, that epiphany lands with all the grace of a cave troll lumbering through the mines of Moria.
Alas, that isn’t the only regard in which “Tolkien” tries to draft off the audience’s pre-existing connection to the author’s work, and — perhaps even more importantly — to the other films that have already been inspired by it. The oft-repeated ethos of Helheimr, the boys’ carpe diem-like code for self-betterment and seizing the day, tends to clash with the magical thinking the script inflicts upon their story; it’s hard to live in the moment when many of those moments are reverse-engineered from how they might have impacted a series of fantasy novels (it doesn’t help that Thomas Newman’s score is so inspired by Howard Shore’s genius that it sounds about three notes away from inspiring Howard Shore’s legal team). Most scenes feel precious and isolated, as though they’re being watched through a pensieve. Tolkien’s trip to the opera leads to at least two different jokes about how it shouldn’t take six hours to tell the story of a magic ring. You probably get it, but there’s really very little here for you if you don’t.
And yet, that trip to the opera is the film’s strongest passage. More than any other sequence, it has a self-contained soul of its own; a rare and refreshing change of pace in a movie that tries and fails to exist beyond the shadow of its subject’s destiny. Hoult may feel miscast for his size, but he’s a brilliant actor whose furrowed brow hints at the profound confusion that Tolkien navigates between the magical thinking of his imagination and the grim reality of the encroaching political crisis. His screentime with Collins is limited, and the brilliant actress is boxed in by a very typical “wife of a great man” part, but she plays repressed desire with a zeal that believably gets under Tolkien’s skin, and reinforces the wastefulness of war.
When Tolkien and Bratt sneak into the opera and listen to Wagner from the narrow alley behind the stage, Karukoski’s camera pulls back to reveal a trench of a different kind. For once in this otherwise listless movie, art and life are fluently melded into one, and the commercialization that Christopher Tolkien raged against restores a foundational aspect of his father’s creation. “The Lord of the Rings” didn’t come from nothing. “Tolkien” may not be a worthy tribute to the people who made it possible, but it convincingly reminds us that Tolkien’s writing is.
Fox Searchlight will release “Tolkien” in theaters on Friday, May 10.