I owe my Tolkien appreciation to my parents, who had me reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings way before other kids my age. Before the movies came out, I remember writing papers in Junior High and High School about Tolkien and his brand of fantasy. And while I loved The Lord of the Rings films (and tolerated The Hobbit), I found myself far less interested in this drama based on his life (and the empty theater reinforced that I wasn’t the only one).
J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) is a young man fascinated by language. As a boy, he is orphaned and falls in love with a girl named Edith (Lily Collins). He also finds himself best friends with three other boys, all fascinated by music, art, and poetry (Patrick Gibson, Anthony Boyle, and Tom Glynn-Carney). Our story is told in several time periods, including Tolkien’s early youth, his days at Oxford, and his time spent during World War 1 in the trenches. All of these eras influence his imagination and sow the seeds for what will eventually become the world of Middle-Earth.
Nicholas Hoult is great here, I think better than I’ve ever seen him. He perfectly balances the charisma of Tolkien and the alienation and isolation he feels. He has great chemistry with Lily Collins, who also does a decent job with what she’s given. The best moments of the film are centered around this foursome of friends as they debate and discuss literature and life and art. Like the story in The Lord of the Rings, it’s a message of fellowship and forging bonds with others.
There’s also some great and traumatic moments during his time in war that are quite powerful, where imagery is used as a powerful mechanism to instill emotions in us. I just wish the payoff were a little stronger, but I’ll get to that.
What doesn’t work?
In my opening statement, I wondered if this movie could be as interesting as anything Tolkien wrote. And unfortunately it’s not. This is a fairly typical British drama, of a young man who pines for a young woman and finds many obstacles to them being together. On this front, this movie fails though because it breezes past some big moments of drama (at one point our heroine is engaged to someone else but we never see or hear about this again). People looking to this movie to scratch that romantic drama itch will likely be disappointed.
Likewise, diehard fans of Tolkien will see this movie wanting to see all the nuances of how he created this world. We get glimpses but it’s unfortunately limited. We can make some leaps in judgment on how certain things came to be, but the actual creation of Middle-Earth is mostly off-screen. We even see flashes during the war sequences of moments that resemble a dragon or resemble black riders on horseback, but even these moments are underwhelming.
So who is this movie for? I think this is the heart of the problem. There’s a very small sliver of folks who would likely be interested in both the creation of his mythology as well as a romantic drama. And even those people will likely be disappointed by the outcome. I also wanted to see glimpses of how spirituality played into this, as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had a relationship and both discussed how religion played into their created mythologies… We don’t get any of that.
To make all of this worse, the movie is painfully boring for long stretches. Even the wartime sequences, he spends most of these sequences laying on the ground near death, watching blankly as the war erupts around him.
A few of you might watch this movie and say to yourself “That was fine.” That is about the highest compliment I can give. Both Hoult and Collins do a great job but the script does them a disservice, not satisfying those seeking romance and not satisfying those seeking insight into Tolkien’s creations. It’s a slow journey that doesn’t really pay off so it’s hard to really recommend this one.