By Clea Simon
As readers know, a thread of melancholy runs through Tolkien’s masterwork, deepening and informing his achievement. It should, by rights, have its place in any depiction of his life.
Tolkien, directed by Dome Karukoski. Screening at Somerville Theatre and Kendall Square Cinema, and Regal Cinemas Fenway 13.
The creators of the film Tolkien have missed a bet. They had at their fingertips all the ingredients for a compelling, dramatic portrait of the artist as a young man: orphanhood, poverty, the horrors of World War I, romance. All the elements that would eventually inform the creation of his masterwork, The Lord of the Rings.
That story ought to have a built-in dramatic arc. However, despite some truly harrowing imagery and the sweet, true love story at its core, the new biopic Tolkien, directed by Dome Karukoski from a script by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, largely misses these dramatic beats, making for a sentimental diversion, best enjoyed by diehard fans of the subject’s much more compelling work.
Overall – and despite the Tolkien foundation largely washing its hands of the project – Tolkien basically gets the facts right, including the nearly Dickension scope of the author’s early tragedies. Tolkien was born in South Africa, in 1892, where his father, a bank clerk, died young, in 1896, and soon after, his mother, Mabel, brought her sons, John Ronald Reuel and his younger brother Hilary, back to England. A brief interlude living in rural Sarehole, which would instill in the older Tolkien a love bordering on reverence for the agricultural England of hedges and villages, ended as the increasingly destitute family relocated to industrialized Birmingham.
The main action of the film begins when the young Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult, looking a little old for his teenage years) is sent to the city’s King Edward’s School on scholarship, a school where he was to form close friendships among similarly creative students — a forerunner of the “Inklings” literary group that he would later belong to at Oxford. Mabel’s death from diabetes (then untreatable) in 1904 throws her adolescent sons into boarding, placing additional pressure on young John Ronald Raul to keep up his grades, and thus his scholarship. These pressures cause his guardian, the parish priest (Colm Meaney), to step in when the 16-year-old protagonist, already a budding linguist, forms a romantic alliance with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a 19-year-old orphan boarding at the same house as the Tolkien brothers. By the time he is 18, the young student is forbidden to see or even correspond with Edith until he reaches his majority, at 21.
Tolkien’s was a genteel poverty, to be sure, depicted by pennies collected in a jar. The worst humiliation is when he is turned away from the theater when he seeks to treat Edith to a production of Das Rheingold. He lacks the necessary funds for the few remaining seats as well as the proper attire. That this disappointment is then turned into a fanciful scene in which the young lovers listen — and partially act out — the opera from an alley-like storage area captures the film’s strengths and weaknesses. The scene is sweet and touching, with Hoult and Collins believably earnest and fresh. It is also, most likely, purely fictional — a saccharine creation used to illustrate a life that was packed with real drama, romance, and astounding creativity (including, of course, Tolkien’s mining of the same Norse legends that inspired Wagner).
At times, Tolkien, the film, comes close to capturing the inherent drama of the struggling young artist’s life. It gives us the setup, the adverse influences, the trauma of war. But by focusing on the positive – the friendships (or fellowship, as they improbably call it) and the romance — the filmmakers stint on the negative, and thus, the emotional impact.
That may sound like an odd claim, given that the film opens with a nightmare scene during the battle of the Somme. Years before, when Tolkien is uprooted from his rural paradise, we are at least treated to a wild run of panic, a few longing looks at the trees that would embody nobility and grace in his later works. A seminal loss, too briefly noted. In the trenches, however, the filmmakers shy away from the pain. The Tolkien we see in France, is, if not inured to the horror, already too ill to notice. (Tolkien was ultimately invalided out with trench fever.) In the recurring sequence, Tolkien, then a second lieutenant, makes his way feverishly through a hellscape of mud and blood below and fire above. Aided by an adjutant named appropriately (if improbably) Sam, the near delirious officer is searching for one of his boyhood friends. We, the audience, recoil in horror. The bodies, the misery! But because we don’t get to share our protagonist’s first fright or disgust, nor even his struggle to survive, it is hard to connect this trauma with the powerful fiction he would later create.
When he wakes, to the news of devastation, Edith is already by his side. All is clean and bodes well, with a focus on the happy ending that is cheapened, somewhat, by the downplaying of the tragedy that would inspire his art. As readers know, a thread of melancholy runs through Tolkien’s masterwork, deepening and informing his achievement. It should, by rights, have its place in any depiction of his life.
A former journalist, Clea Simon is the author of three nonfiction books and 26 mysteries. A contributor to such publications as the Boston Globe, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle, she lives in Somerville with her husband, Jon Garelick. She can be reached here and on @Clea_Simon.