PLOT The pre-literary life of the pioneering fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien.
CAST Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Anthony Boyle
RATED PG-13 (some violent war scenes)
BOTTOM LINE A nicely crafted but ultimately unenlightening biopic.
The greater the artist, the more interesting we expect his life to be. It’s a truism that has helped greenlight many a biopic, with mixed results. Jackson Pollock’s visionary paintings and sorry personal life made for a gripping film, “Pollock” (2000); Brian Wilson’s heart-rending music and mental illness, however, made for an only so-so drama, “Love & Mercy” (2015).
With those stories, it was the telling that made the difference. With “Tolkien,” Dome Karukoski’s film about the writer J.R.R. Tolkien, the story itself seems to be the problem.
“Tolkien” has plenty to recommend it, beginning with a more than credible performance from Nicholas Hoult in the title role. It’s a handsome film, with warm cinematography and lived-in costumes that transport us to England in the years before World War I. The writing, by Stephen Beresford (“Pride”) and David Gleeson, is quite fine. Yet the film tells us precious little about what, specifically, inspired Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” two fantasy novels so richly detailed and prodigiously imaginative that they have arguably never been equaled.
The film itself is full of details, though few make much dramatic impact. The deaths of both parents leaves a young Tolkien and his brother (a vague character who quickly fades away) bordering on destitution; a local priest, Father Francis (Colm Meaney), sees that they get a good education. Tolkien makes his way to Oxford, where he falls in with several engaging young intellectuals who form a little club — a “fellowship,” as Tolkien puts it, echoing a theme of his yet-unwritten novels. Lily Collins plays Edith Bratt, his first love and, after his return from the Great War, his wife.
Where, though, are the artistic light bulb moments that we crave? Who or what inspired the pipe-puffing Bilbo Baggins, the slimy Gollum, the wise wizard Gandalf or any of the other characters who have trickled into every fantasy-novel of the past 80 years? Karukoski makes only superficial connections: gnarled shadows on bedroom walls, ghostly figures in German gas clouds. But those are motifs, not insights.
Tolkien’s estate has refused to endorse this film for reasons unstated. Perhaps it’s the portrayal of Tolkien’s friend Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle) as having been in love with him, or perhaps there are other factual details amiss. It’s a curious reaction, because “Tolkien” doesn’t seem to diminish or aggrandize the artist. As for the art, it still speaks for itself.