The Finnish director Dome Kurukoski, known for handling unusual subjects (e.g. the fetishistic artist Tom of Finland and the cartoon work of Tuomas Kyrö) takes on the genius J.R.R. Tolkien, as a young man through college and WWI. The film, if a bit slight, is accurate and heartfelt, greatly boosted by the talent of Nicholas Hoult (“Skins,” “The Favourite”) in the title role.
Tolkien (Hoult) lives with his mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) as his father has recently passed. Mabel moves the family to Sarehole, England, now Hall Green.
Through his mother, Tolkien’s imagination is ignited, in part, by her reading aloud and he begins to write his first stories accompanied by drawings of Luciferic beasts and creatures of the field.
With the death of his mother, Tolkien is placed under the care of a strict priest (Colm Meaney).
At school, the boy falls in with some precocious artists, among them Geoff, a poet (Anthony Boyle), Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), and Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney).
The boys form a secret society based on the imagination and the drinking of tea: The T.C.B.S.
In the midst of this, the young man is smitten by the free thinking Edith (Lily Collins) and the two promise to stay together. Father Morgan gets word of this and says no. Edith is not Catholic. Tolkien is crushed and he later finds that Edith is engaged to another man.
This is a conventional biopic from an outlier filmmaker with iconoclastic concerns. We do not have anything too wild about Tolkien, but Hoult is excellent. The actor clearly shows the famed author who lives inwardly, yet comes alive through the fire of his friends. Though he is very in love with Edith, the mental adventurer (who conjures his own peculiar language with Finnish influences) has a definite intimate connection with Geoff.
The scenes of war are particularly stirring showing huge Goya beasts on the Somme. At times, given the depiction of the priest, the boy’s academia, and the war the film could have been as vivid and provocative as Alan Parker’s wondrous “Pink Floyd: The Wall.” If only Kurukoski had taken more of a risk, going full out Tolkien instead of pulling back.
Still, “Tolkien” has a warm and easy spirit showing the gift of friendship for what it is: a visitation of magic that occurs in reality, as adamantine as a ring.
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