Nicholas Hoult in Tolkien (Photo: Fox Searchlight)
** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Dome Karukoski
STARS Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins
Folks who find themselves increasingly bored of the Rings might want to skip Tolkien, a starchy biopic about the creator of The Lord of the Rings. Then again, even those who retain an affinity for all things Middle-Earth might elect to take a hard pass on a film that possesses little of the magic and imagination that informed J.R.R. Tolkien’s most famous works.
Often playing like outtakes from Dead Poets Society, Tolkien primarily focuses on the formative school years of the English author (portrayed by Nicholas Hoult), whose camaraderie with three other lads informs his views on friendship and loyalty. These idyllic scenes are interspersed with ones in which Tolkien serves in World War I, learning firsthand that all is decidedly not quiet on the Western Front. There are also glimpses at his relationship with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), who would eventually become his wife.
Clearly, a visionary person like J.R.R. Tolkien deserves a visionary treatment of his life, but Tolkien is as literal-minded as biopics come. Director Dome Karukoski’s few attempts at drawing from fantasy rather than reality (such as soldiers armed with flamethrowers morphing into fire-breathing dragons) look so cheap that you wish Peter Jackson would have shown mercy and donated footage from his epic undertaking. But the real problem with Tolkien is that it pays short shrift to the creative process, instead taking pains to show how everything that ended up on the written page sprang less from the writer’s own imagination and more from real-life events. It’s a one-sided argument that leads to such dubious scenes as Tolkien telling his pals that they should create a “fellowship,” or a later sequence in which one of the gang quips that (in reference to Wagner’s Ring cycle) “it shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring.” These bits aren’t meant to illuminate Tolkien’s life as much as they’re meant to placate LOTR junkies. In short, they give new meaning to the term “fan fiction.”