Movie Review: “Tolkien”
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Harry Gilby) has just lost his mother, even though he is still just a boy. Him and his little brother end up in foster care, are moved to a new city, and are placed in a foster home where they have a new foster sister named Edith (Mimi Keene). Edith is a talented young pianist, and John has a gift in understanding languages, as well as a talent for telling stories. He struggles to find his place in a new school, but he forms a brotherhood with a few passionate and eager fellow students.
Almost into adulthood, Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) struggles with getting into a good school while his infatuation with Edith (Lily Collins) continues to grow. His brotherhood and his passion for writing are stronger than ever, but with the beginning of World War I, he is about to go on a tragic journey that could jeopardize everything he cares about. Edith, his writing, his friends; he cares about them all deeply, but he must go to war to defend his country. Along the way, he finds inspiration for what could be a truly epic story of his own creation. A story about tragedy, war, love, and fellowship.
The Pros & Cons
Lily Collins (+5pts)
Inspiration & Writing (-3pts)
Pro: Tolkien (+10pts)
I liked this character, both for the actors who played him as well as because I got to learn a bit more about the man who created an iconic story. Before seeing this movie, all I knew about J. R. R. Tolkien was that he was in World War I and that he wrote The Hobbit as well as The Lord of the Rings. His stories have had a massive influence on modern culture and have continued to inspire writers to this day. I enjoyed learning about the life of the person who wrote these stories, even though I am sure that the filmmakers took some creative liberties with this movie. Either way, the movie added context to an iconic, influential writer who I previously knew very little about.
Additionally, I liked how both actors portrayed the character. Harry Gilby did a good job playing Tolkien during his childhood, and Nicholas Hoult did a good job of playing Tolkien during his adulthood. Each actor got plenty of screen time, and brought their own thing to the role, without making the parts feel like two different characters. There was plenty of dramatic material for both actors, and both did a good job of bringing that drama to the screen in a compelling way.
Con: Childhood (-3pts)
I did not dislike anything in the childhood story line, but I thought that it got far too much focus. The filmmakers intended to tell the story about Tolkien's life, but got too caught up with the beginning of his story. Again, there was not any aspect of this story that I thought was done poorly. I just think the filmmakers could have made this portion of the story more concise, and moved on to later aspects of Tolkien's life (such as his time at war and his inspirations for writing his iconic stories). By spending so much time in his childhood, the movie (at times) felt like when someone starts telling you a story then gets sidetracked and tells you a bunch of unnecessary information. It was not "bad", I just did not think it was all necessary for this movie.
Pro: Lily Collins (+5pts)
Lily Collins was crucial in making me care about the relationship between Edith and Tolkien. Her and Nicholas Hoult had good chemistry, but what she brought to the character made her interesting to watch. Edith has a strong passion for music, but feels like a prisoner in her life. She also admires Tolkien’s work, while pushing him to be better.
Edith very clearly loves Tolkien, and played an incredibly important role in making him who he was. With all of this, the character had plenty of dramatic moments. Lily Collins did a great job with this, while making the character both relatable and likable. You cannot ask for much more from a supporting character.
Con: War (-3pts)
Throughout the movie, the story jumps back and forth between different points in Tolkien’s life. The two main timelines are Tolkien as a child, and Tolkien trying to get into college. As the filmmakers needed to jump back and forth, they used Tolkien’s time at war as a transitionary timeline. As such, we (the audience) do not get to learn much about Tolkien during this time.
Tolkien’s time at war was used to throw in brief action and imagery from The Lord of the Rings. The filmmakers imply that what Tolkien witnessed during his time at war served as the basis for a lot of the imagery he put into his books. The war timeline was effective at picking up the pace of the film and at making it feel like more was happening. Unfortunately, it was not effective at adding to the character of Tolkien. Most of these scenes felt a bit random and felt like the filmmakers were trying too hard to please fans of The Lord of the Rings. However, I think fans wanted to see what inspired the man to write the stories they love; I do not think they wanted to see the filmmakers simply throw random imagery from The Lord of the Rings onto the screen.
Pro: Fellowship (+5pts)
Of all of the aspects of The Lord of the Rings stories that were incorporated into this movie, the fellowship was the aspect that was handled the best. Most of the aspects that were in this movie were brief glimpses or teases, but the sense of fellowship played a crucial part in Tolkien’s story during this movie. As a child, we see Tolkien meet his group of friends at school. As an adult, we see how strong this fellowship has grown.
After becoming an orphan, strong friendships were important in making Tolkien feel like he belonged to something. The group was fun to spend time with, reminded me of the friendships from my youth, and they each pushed each other to strive for greatness in their respective, artistic passions. This fellowship was the perfect mix of being entertaining, while also being incredibly important to the progression of the main character. In that way, the fellowship in this movie was not dissimilar from the fellowship in The Lord of the Rings. I liked this fellowship and thought it gave good context to what inspired Tolkien to include a fellowship in his epic fantasy.
Con: Inspiration & Writing (-3pts)
I know that I just said that I liked how the filmmakers incorporated fellowship into this movie, as I thought it gave good context to what inspired Tolkien to write about fellowship in his stories. That being said, this was the only aspect of The Lord of the Rings that I thought the filmmakers handled properly. The rest was just kind of slapped into random fever sequences during Tolkien’s time at war. These were visually satisfying, but there did not seem to be any connection between them and Tolkien. In other words, they were there, but I saw no reason why Tolkien would find them significant enough to write about them years later.
I was also a bit let down that the movie begins with Tolkien beginning to write The Hobbit. I liked symbolism from the fact that this is how Bilbo’s story ended as well. However, I would have liked to have seen some of his writing process, along with how he came up with some of the aspects of his story. Additionally, I would have liked to have seen how other characters reacted to his story initially. Did they think it was brilliant? Did they think he was crazy? This could have been a very entertaining aspect of this movie, given the audience’s familiarity with Tolkien’s story, but the filmmakers did not go there.
Grade: B+ (86pts)
I was honestly very interested in this movie. I very much enjoyed The Lord of the Rings and understand the cultural significance of that story as well as the author wrote it. That being said, before seeing this movie, I knew very little about J. R. R. Tolkien. With that respect, I was excited to learn more about the man behind the iconic epic fantasy (even though I knew this would be at least a partially fictionalized version of Tolkien’s life). I liked learning about the life of J. R. R. Tolkien, and I thought both actors (Nicholas Hoult and Harry Gilby) did a good job of playing the different ages of the author. They both had plenty of drama, and each brought their own thing to the character, but their respective parts worked well together. I also liked what Lily Collins brought to her character. Edith was a significant part of Tolkien‘s story and Lily Collins brought likability and complexity to the character.
The filmmakers also did a good job of bringing “fellowship” into this story and at showing what inspired Tolkien to incorporate a similar fellowship into The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, the filmmakers did not do a great job of showing what inspired Tolkien in other areas. I thought that Tolkien’s childhood got a bit too much focus and screen time in this, screen time that could have been spent on more relevant aspects of Tolkien’s life. This was not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. I liked it, but I think the filmmakers could have done a better job at telling Tolkien’s story as it related to the epic fantasy that he would go on to write.