Middle-earth or middle-of-the-road? Dome Karukoski’s take on the Lord of the Rings author’s early life doesn’t even try to break the biopic mold.
Walk Hard, the John C. Reilly spoof of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, came out more than a decade ago, and it seems that the world of big-budget biopics has learned very little since. Hollywood continues to churn out overly glossy, superficial depictions of everyone from Freddy Mercury to RBG with the results ranging from “disastrous” to “fine, I guess.” Largely exercises in uninteresting filmmaking, the rare biopic stands out (Malcolm X immediately comes to mind), but the rest? Forgettable. Tolkien is no exception.
While I couldn’t blame you if you mistook it for The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game or any other biopic starring an impish Brit, it’s actually the story of J.R.R. Tolkien’s (Nicholas Hoult) early days. Focused mainly on his time at King Edward’s School and Oxford, the film explores Tolkien’s friendships with fellow creatives composer Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney), poet Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle), and artist Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), as well as Tolkien’s romance with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins).
We follow as Tolkien loses his mother, finds his place in his new school and falls in love. But the film doesn’t start at any of these points. Instead, it opens with the Battle of the Somme, a notoriously bloody World War I battle that saw 3 million men go out to fight and left nearly a third of them wounded or killed.
Tolkien is both obsessed with its namesake’s WWI experiences and also completely uninterested in them.
Director Dome Karukoski uses the battle as a framing device for the rest of the movie, punctuating scenes of somewhat graphic war violence with vignettes from Tolkien’s happier days. This ends up being a frustratingly bizarre choice because Tolkien is both obsessed with its namesake’s WWI experiences and also completely uninterested in them.
The battle scenes take great care to show the horror of the Great War: clouds of mustard gas wafting over the fields, shells blowing bodies apart, and Tolkien himself shivering from trench fever on a pile of corpses. But while these moments provide context, they don’t explore the effect they must have had on Tolkien himself.
There are a few clever moments where CGI effects transform flamethrowers and the roar of gunfire into a dragon’s bellow suggesting a source of inspiration for his fantasy epics. But the film doesn’t probe any further than that. As soon as the Battle of the Somme ends, so does the movie—save for a relatively pat little epilogue.
We see Tolkien and his crew in their uniforms, but did they willingly sign up? Were any of them conflicted about it? Did Tolkien even support the war? When he comes home, scarred by violence and suffering great personal loss, how does he recover? Does it change his relationship with Edith? How will these experiences shape his writing? How will they damage the friendships he has left?
We don’t know because Karukoski doesn’t even try to tell us.
These aren’t necessarily questions any biopic about Tolkien would have to answer, but for one constructed entirely around the war, they’re the ones I’d expect to be addressed. By ignoring these points, it makes it unclear not just why the story is being told this way, but why Karukoski is telling it at all.
Hoult is a fine actor whose recent scene-stealing turn in The Favourite was a pleasant reminder of that fact, but he never gets the chance to explore these parts of Tolkien and that’s a real waste. He’s charming as a young schoolboy, but he spends all of the battle scenes staring mostly into space, which isn’t terribly effective or interesting to watch. The entire cast does a great job, but it’s just not enough to save the film from mediocrity.
Because ultimately, it’s unclear who Tolkien is really for. By not digging deeper, it doesn’t seem like there’s much for superfans to learn here and for the rest of us, it’s just another pleasantly forgettable way to spend two hours. Biopics can be better than this; they just have to want to tell us something more than the Cliff’s Notes of a life well lived.