Starring Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynn-Carney, Craig Roberts, Pam Ferris, James MacCallum, Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O’Reilly, Samuel Martin
Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford
Directed by Dome Karukoski
Produced by Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, David Ready and Kris Thykier
Cinematography by Lasse Frank
Edited by Harri Yionen
Music by Thomas Newman
“Tolkien,” a beautiful, eloquent, stylish, classy and intelligent biography of British author J.R.R. Tolkien—who wrote the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Hobbit” and “The Silmarillion”—is the best movie so far in 2019, and a strong early contender to be one of the year’s very best films.
This coming weekend (May 10-12, 2019), just simply get up and go out to the theaters and see “Tolkien,” an excellent film at every level; another in an excellent recent string of great film biographies; a beautifully-realized period and historical drama; and a wonderful, insightful, consistently smart and perceptive–and enjoyable– intellectual filmic exploration of literature, writing, poetry, music, art, creativity, inspiration, dedication to the arts, friendship, love, family, education, history–and fellowship!
“Tolkien” tells the heartbreaking–but still always uplifting and positive–story about the early years of J.R.R. Tolkien in England, and Tolkien’s real-life story about his early years is indeed a great–and true–story that stands firmly on its own–even if Tolkien didn’t become of the world’s most successful and famous fantasy writers! Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins are exceptional in every frame, and director Dome Karukoski is equally masterful in every frame, and he has directed an instant-classic.
“Tolkien” simply blows away, in a large manner, every other film realized so far in 2019, and is, again, easily the best movie released so far this year.
“Tolkien” opens everywhere this Friday, May 10, 2019. This is the movie to see this weekend.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was raised in South Africa and England and he experienced several harrowing incidents in his life through his early years, teens and college years. It’s no spoiler to note that he lost both of his parents by the age of 12; he and his younger brother were taken care of by a caring, kindly priest who did all that he could to look after the Tolkien brothers; at 16, Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt—the love of his life—but he was subsequently prohibited by the priest from seeing her until he was 21, as the priest thought their courtship was hurting Tolkien’s education and grades; Tolkien enlisted in World War I and experienced up close and personally the myriad horrors of war on the battlefield; he almost lost Edith to another man; and he formed intense and enriching close friendships with several students at high school and college, and those friendships were tested by the war. These plot and story elements, again, are not spoilers, because much of Tolkien’s life story is already well-known, and, even if one was not aware of these incidents, the film “Tolkien” is excellent enough that even if one knows these story lines going into the film, that will not ruin the experience of watching the movie. The filmmakers, cast and crew are all talented enough that they have crafted an enjoyable, enriching and entertaining film biography that will hold filmgoers’ attention, no matter how much they know about Tolkien’s life.
The film is about many things, as noted, but an obvious underlying aspect of this particular film biography story is how Tolkien’s life experiences would obviously heavily influence his “Rings,” “Hobbit” and “Silmarillion” works. Tolkien’s early years as a young kid and teen in the lush, beautiful countryside of England influenced many of the more bucolic settings of the “Rings” works, such as the Shire, the home of the hobbits; his intense and enduring love for Edith and for his wonderful, caring mother would inspire incredibly strong, powerful and respected female characters in his works—a great testament to love; his rich, inspiring and endearingly close friendship with three other equally talented, creative and intelligent students in high school and college—Robert Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith and Christopher Wiseman—inspired Tolkien’s insistence on friendship and fellowship in his works—of course, friendship and fellowship were among the many main themes of the “Rings” and “Hobbit” works; and the horrors of war, violence, battle, combat and war-associated evil obviously inspired scores of elements of the his works; Tolkien’s early intellectual love of literature, writing, poetry, words and language—inspired in part by his mother’s early teachings of all types of authors, stories and books, through verbal storytelling and through books–inspired him to create complete languages and peoples and societies that added layers of depths to his writings; and Tolkien’s general love of nature, trees and botany—inspired in part by his mother’s early teachings of botany—enriched his works with scores of important, deep messages about the inherent, everlasting importance of nature, trees, botany, biology, ecology, wildlife and the environment in general to the basic, core foundation of life in his works.
And the film “Tolkien” presents all of these influences through very clever symbolism, foreshadowing, visuals. story and plot development and characterization, character development and characterization, and general strong storytelling that manages to not only tell Tolkien’s life story in an consistently entertaining manner and style, but also presents in a subtle, suggestive manner how those life experiences would, again, influence not only Tolkien’s creativity, talent and writing, but Tolkien the man, as well.
Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien and Lily Collins as Edith will steal your heart in “Tolkien,” as their natural beauty and presence combine with their strong acting talents to present two watchable, likeable, smart, insightful and intelligent people that people will care about—and they should care about them. John and Edith Tolkien were simply good people—great people, really—and this, fortunately, is one film biography that doesn’t need to show any horribly negative or gossipy or dumbed-down aspects of their lives—because there really weren’t any such aspects! Tolkien, by all accounts, was a most upstanding, much-loved, respected and revered author, family man—and educator. He actually worked for decades as an educator, including working at Oxford as an English language and literature professor for many years. He did indeed eventually marry Edith, and they raised four sons. Tolkien lived to be 81, and he died in 1973. Edith died in 1971, at the age of 82. They were married for more than fifty years. They doted on their children and grandchildren. And Tolkien was as respected in the halls and classrooms and offices of Oxford as he was throughout the world as a respected author. So John Tolkien was an accomplished, successful man at all levels of life, and to his deserved credit, the movie “Tolkien” adheres to this respect and presents Tolkien as the smart, caring, educated, dedicated and intelligent author, educator, husband and family man that he was in real life.
While in high school and college, Tolkien and Bilson, Smith and Wiseman were such close friends, they formed a small, secret society that celebrated their friendship, their dedication to the arts and culture, and provided a strong bond during their formative years. The scenes where these four young actors—Hoult as Tolkien; Anthony Boyle as Geoffrey Bache Smith; Patrick Gibson as Robert Gilson; and Tom Glynn-Carney as Christopher Wiseman—bond, create, banter, play sports, socialize, talk, analyze and generally celebrate life—are inspiring and uplifting and positive on so many levels, their story alone could be a movie. These incredibly smart, talented and fun guys not only hung out and talked about many things, they also supported each other, to the point where they acted in some ways as substitute parents—they acted the way that all true friends should act towards one another. And Boyle, Gibson and Glynn-Carney portray their characters with gusto, charm, savvy and talent, fully embracing their characters’ love of life. The compliment and support the two main leads, Hoult and Collins, and all six young actors just propel this film forward with their talent and enthusiasm. To watch these actors and characters form such as close bond in life is enriching, and, again, it’s clear that these friendships inspired the theme of fellowship, dedication and friendship that were a core factor for the main characters in Tolkien’s fantasy works.
Director Dome Karukoski, a celebrated and successful Finnish director, certainly and obviously did his homework—he thoroughly researched Tolkien’s life and works before the film—and this dedication to his subject shows throughout “Tolkien” from start to finish. The film’s settings, story elements, plot points, plots and subplots, characterizations, symbolism, imagery and production design all obviously come straight from Tolkien’s life, and everything connects just as they should connect in a film from a strong director—beautiful, consistently stylized and lush production design, art design, costumes, wardrobe, period elements; beautifully rendered high school and college scenes set in libraries, classrooms, offices, quads and dorm rooms; harrowing, frightening, scary and downright nightmarish World War I battlefield scenes—but all presented without any unnecessary bloody or gory graphic violence; beautifully romantic and sentimental home scenes, childhood scenes, and courtship and love scenes between Tolkien and Edith; well-acted scenes of banter, talk, discussion and conversation among Tolkien, Gilson, Smith and Wiseman; and some quite intellectual scenes delving into the worlds of writing, language words and academics between Tolkien and his various professors and mentors.
Two of those mentors—the great Derek Jacobi as one of Tolkien’s main professors, the equally-respected language and literature academic Joseph Wright and Colm Meaney as the hard-line, strict, but caring caretaker priest Father Francis Morgan—also stand out in the film. Jacobi is always fascinating to watch—he excels in portraying strong, powerful, commanding and smart leaders—and Meaney, in addition, always excels as well. The addition of Jacobi and Meaney as these older, more mature and grounded authority figures provides a nice balance in the film to the energetic youthfulness of Tolkien, Edith and their high school and college friends. Jacobi and Meaney are excellent in their roles, and the presence of these commanding authority figures in the film could be seen as strong influences for the Gandalf character and the various strong kings and community leaders in Tolkien’s works.
A special note should be made about the beautiful, richly-rendered, highly-stylish and consistently classy and eloquent production design and art direction in “Tolkien.” This is a film that takes place in the late 1800s (Tolkien was born in 1892) and early 1900s, and Karukoski’s production and art crews excel in presenting a movie that takes viewers back to that time and place, and ensures that all elements of those periods are believable—costumes, wardrobe, props, hair, make-up, settings, neighborhoods, countryside, colleges, high schools, boarding houses, churches, offices. All are beautifully rendered, and if there’s an always-pleasant, somewhat-nostalgic, somewhat-sentimental aspect to the film, story and production and art design—then good. Because a pleasant, nostalgic and sentimental atmosphere and mood befits this story and film. There’s no reason to go horribly dark and depressing, and the generally uplifting and optimistic overall direction and production help lift up this film to the high ground where the movie and story and characters should reside. The production and art design crews should be noted and praised for their period and historical work throughout “Tolkien.”
It’s been a good period at the movies for biographies in recent years, and “Tolkien” continues this encouraging trend. Just in 2018, several of the best films of the year were biographies—“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “First Man,” “Vice,” “Green Book” (which deservedly won Best Picture for 2018—a good selection) and “Operation Finale,” among others. And “Hidden Figures,” of course, was one of 2016’s best films, and “Tully,” also from 2016, was also an above-average biography. And 2017’s “The Disaster Artist” and “The Greatest Showman” were two of the best films of that year! And in 2015, “The Danish Girl,” and in 204, “The Theory of Everything,” were among the best films of those years!
So this is indeed encouraging. Producers, directors, actors and studios should be making film biographies—there’s thousands of stories to be told, of course, and these films can be made on a level where they can be critically, creatively, popularly, intelligently—and financially—successful. And, of course, these film biographies are welcome reliefs from the endless barrage of sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, reimaginings and re-whatevers that have dominated the movies for just a bit too long, and, in some cases, to the point where some franchises are seeing diminished returns and lessened interest.
So bring on the smart, creative and entertaining film biography! By the way, “Rocketman,” the buzzed-about film biography of Elton John, is scheduled to open on Friday, May 31, 2019!
J.R.R. Tolkien and Edith Bratt lived wonderful, beautiful, strong, academic, intelligent, fulfilling and successful lives, and Tolkien’s wonderfully endearing, enduring, enjoyable, inspiring, intelligent and overall incredible works—the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Hobbit” and “The Silmarillion,” among other works—remain as relevant, enriching and important today as they have always been. And that is a great testament to the continuing inspiration of Tolkien—the man, the author, the artist, the poet, the writer, the family man, the professor, the educator, the mentor that he himself eventually came to be. And the movie biography “Tolkien” lives up to all of this intelligence and inspiration, and is a respectful, reverent and honorable testament to John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Here, at the end of all things in this review, the legions of fans of Tolkien, and fans of quality writing and quality films, could not ask for anything more. The time of Tolkien magic lives on proudly and majestically in the film biography “Tolkien.”