Tolkien (AU - M/UK -12A/US - PG-13)

In A Word: Nascent

Tolkien

Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins in the film Tolkien. PICTURE: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

 

"[T]his film chooses not to explore his personal faith. Rather, it focuses on how friendship, romance and tragedy influenced him. While it may seem like a lost opportunity, Tolkien himself theorised that the fundamental truths in a great story were divine echoes of “the Truth” found in God. With that in mind, Tolkien may well be pleased that this story of his life shows that great courage grows with real friendship, true love requires great courage and lives change in the presence of true love."

JRR (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien is considered the father of high fantasy. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have shaped the imaginations of millions and inspired countless stories, films, games and art. Tolkien, the film, is a biopic covering the early life of the fledgling writer and explores the friendships, romance and loss that shaped him and the tales he created.

The film begins with a young JRR Tolkien (Harry Gilby) who is orphaned and placed under the care of Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meany). Recognising Tolkien’s great academic potential he is given a fine education where he matures into the adult Tolkien played by Nicholas Hoult (the Beast of the newer X-Men films). His years at school are marked by a deep bond of fellowship with three other burgeoning artists: the poet Geoffrey Bache Smith, the painter, Robert Q Gilson and the composer Christopher Wisemen. Together they form a semi-secret society called the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) where they pledge to better the world through their artistic contributions.

Their friendship continues past high school into their college years and later in the trenches of the Somme in World War I. Throughout these years, they inspire each other creatively, harass each other mischievously and, most importantly, encourage one another to be bold and very courageous. In parallel to this tale of brotherly love, the film explores the other great influence in Tolkien’s life: his first love with fellow orphan Edith Bratt (Lily Collins). Their romance is at times charming, humorous, tragic and unexpected. Despite all the mixed emotions in this relationship, Tolkien learns the value of attaching meaning to his invented words. This meaning leads to story and those stories have become legend.

Throughout the journey, there are glimpses of the fantasy world forming in Tolkien’s mind. Enchanted forests appear in silhouettes on his bedroom wall, fire-breathing dragons are imagined in the battle of the Somme along with wraiths and mounted knights. The film assumes a deep knowledge of The Lord of the Rings with multiple references to characters, objects and places that appear in his stories that will be lost on the casual observer.  By choosing to focus only on an early part of Tolkien's life rather than his entire life story, the film feels like it's just the first part of a greater story. There is a deliberate attempt to create a tone that is intimate and understated, focusing on moments of honest emotion and genuine fascination. 

While Tolkien’s faith is well known - though not as well known as that of his close friend CS Lewis, this film chooses not to explore his personal faith. Rather, it focuses on how friendship, romance and tragedy influenced him. While it may seem like a lost opportunity, Tolkien himself theorised that the fundamental truths in a great story were divine echoes of “the Truth” found in God. With that in mind, Tolkien may well be pleased that this story of his life shows that great courage grows with real friendship, true love requires great courage and lives change in the presence of true love.