'Tolkien' – a pretty, but dull, film about J.R.R. Tolkien

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

A much better title for the squishily disappointing new bio-flick, “Tolkien” would be “Bored of the Rings.”

Oh, how I wish I’d made that up myself, but it’s stolen from a National Lampoon parody that came out around 1970 when the author’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was at the height of its popularity on college campuses.

Nevertheless, it is appropriate.

A movie poster of "Tolkien"

A movie poster of “Tolkien”

“Tolkien,” starring Nicholas Hoult in the title role, is a too-pretty, too-predictable look at J. R.R. Tolkien’s early life. True, the facts themselves are interesting enough, especially if you are (like me) a devoted fan of “LOTR.”

Orphaned early, he’s taken in by a wealthy widow who sends him to a tony public (that’s Brit for private) school. There, despite his “questionable” background, his intelligence (he quotes Chaucer by heart) and perseverance wins him the friendship of a trio of high-spirited lads. Dubbing themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, they intend to change the world through the power of art, music and literature.

They are, they proclaim, “brothers…an alliance.” An, um, fellowship?

However, the trauma of World War I soon intrudes. In fact, most of the movie goes back and forth between Tolkien’s civilian life and the horror of trench warfare at its bloody, muddy worst. At one point, a feverish Tolkien becomes determined to find one of his chums, over the protestations of his loyal batman who bravely follows him on his…quest?

Need I add the batman’s name is…Sam?

The movie is littered with these sort of clumsy Easter eggs, including a battlefield flamethrower that “eerily” recalls a fire-breathing dragon. Or the blessed green fields his family must trade (hmmm, The Shire anyone?) for the industrial squalor of city life (Mordor anyone?)

“Tolkien” also shows us the writer’s romance with another orphan, Edith (Lily Collins, doing what she can with a nothing role) who ultimately becomes his wife (One lovely factoid from the film: the pair were buried under the same gravestone which was inscribed in Elvish). And there’s an entertaining encounter between Tolkien and the philology professor (Derek Jacobi) who would become his mentor and inspiration.

A scene from "J.R.R. Tolkien"

A scene from “J.R.R. Tolkien”

To its credit, the picture spares us scenes of Tolkien at his typewriter, wadding up and tossing sheets of paper over his shoulder. All we get is a shot of him sitting down and typing out the opening line of “The Hobbit.”

But the movie offers incredibly little insight into one of the greatest fantasists in literature. On the one hand, there’s the Battle of the Somme which is well-rendered, but, you know, been there, seen that.

On the other, there’s Tolkien and his pals whose high-spirited (yet art-loving) behavior is so familiar you wonder if Robin Williams is holding forth on dead poets somewhere on the same campus.

Hoult, who plays The Beast in the X-Men movies, is like the movie: pretty to look at and pretty predictable. But then, I’m not sure what anyone could do with a script as dutiful and dull as this.

Never mind, “there and back again, as “The Hobbit” is subtitled. “Tolkien” doesn’t even take us there.

 

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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