Review: ‘Tolkien’ Fails To Measure Up To Its Namesake

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of those names that everyone just knows. Known for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and many other stories set in middle earth, Tolkien’s influence spans decades and art forms. Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin credits Tolkien’s work as inspiration for his own phenomenon. Peter Jackson’s adaptions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy were nominated for 30 Oscars, winning 17, and was fully responsible for New Zealand’s rise in tourism. It makes sense that Hollywood would eventually make a film about the author. It also makes sense that it would fail to measure up to the legend himself. Starring Nicholas Hoult as J.R.R. Tolkien and Lily Collins as is future wife Edith Bratt, Tolkien explores how war, love and personal loss affected and influenced Tolkien’s writings.

Starting with the influence and death of his mother, the film mainly looks at Tolkien’s love of language and story and how those passions were woven into his relationships. Primarily focusing on Tolkien’s romantic relationship with fellow orphan Edith Bratt and life long friends Geoffrey Smith, Robert Gibson, and Christopher Wisemen, the film hints how these relationships influenced and inspired his writing, without ever making a direct connection or comparison between a Middle-earth character and its real-life counterpart. Because of this any emotional connection the audience might have with these characters fail to shine through. 

Like most of Nicholas Hoult’s performances, this one seemed wooden and lacked passion. There’s not much emotion behind Hoult’s face. Tolkien’s faults are hidden by a lack of personality, making him seem like another boring British guy instead of one of the most influential authors of all time. Lily Collins performance is endearing, providing grace, class, and dimension to the archetype of the overlooked wife of a genius. The main problem with Tolkien is that it scratches the surface of so many aspects of Tolkien’s life, instead of taking a deep dive. Instead of focusing on the relationships between his friends and with Edith, we are also bombarded with his school woes, his experiences as a soldier in WWI, a relationship with a fellow soldier that never really plays out, and the hinting of a genius neglecting his husbandly and fatherly duties. This overcrowded narrative prevents any meaning from shining through. 

Despite narrative shortcomings, the film visually captures the mythos of a literary great. There’s whimsy to the film’s composition. Soft pans glide and camera frames swirl around scenes from Tolkien’s imagination. Intense intimate close-ups make certain scenes more personal. Dragons, knights and fire monsters morph and blend into the Tolkien’s real world. There is something pleasing to the eye in almost every frame. Thomas Newman’s score also provides the film with an ethereal feel, making it one of the best parts of the film. It almost serves as the bridge between Tolkien’s fantasy life and real life, however, director Done Karukoski fails to make the connection between visuals and story. 

What Tolkien went through wasn’t remarkable. It was tragic, but not remarkable. War. Losing friends. Societal obligations and pressure. Those things are unfortunately a part of life. For the last 100 years, every generation has had a war to define their generation. What is interesting is what Tolkien took away from his tragedy. What is remarkable is how he morphed his trauma into epic tales of love, loss, war, and friendship. It’s a shame that the film failed to form any audience investment to the characters. It’s upsetting that you almost have to be a Tolkien scholar to understand the innate connections between the books and this film. The film makes the point numerous times to point out that a pretty sounding word without meaning is just a pretty sounding word. It’s unfortunately ironic that the same can be said for this film.