A few days after seeing Tolkien, I was still staring at a blank Word document saved as “Dull-ton Abbey Review” so I’ve really had to stretch to find something, anything, to say about this film. It’s very pretty, and fans of JRR Tolkien’s work will no doubt enjoy seeing this imagining of his early life and experiences during WWI. It is a very kind and respectful portrayal of its subject, which is a relief. The way biopics usually go (don’t get me started) I wouldn’t have been surprised if you guys had low-key blamed Tolkien for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, because creative licence. There is an inkling of a good idea raised, but it is left unexplored, which is a shame.
I expected the film would be full of cute little wink-wink references to The Lord of the Rings, and I was right. Some of them are funny enough, but most of them are pretty cringeworthy. When young Tolkien and his friends sit around trying to think of a name for their group, I’m pretty sure half the audience rolled their eyes and whispered, “fellowship” long before Tolkien wracks his brain and whispers, “I know… a fellowship!” When staggering through the battlefield at the Somme (or is it… Mordor???), Tolkien is helped by another young soldier, and even someone who has never read the books and barely remembers the movies knows his name is going to be Sam. The film draws a number of these speculative parallels between people in Tolkien’s life and the characters in his books (sadly, anyone angling for the tea on who inspired Gollum is shit out of luck), and it seems like these moments are supposed to be the main draw, when they really should be played for laughs once or twice, and then set aside.
Far more interesting is when the film goes deeper into the weeds regarding philology, mythmaking, and world building. You don’t actually do much more than let us know that JRR Tolkien was super-smart and had a very good imagination, but here is where I feel Tolkien’s narrative could have been massaged into something more than a rote biopic. Tolkien’s love of language, his affinity for myth, and his singular talent for world building take on a different kind of weight when you situate them within a period of history defined by the breakdown of language and the near-destruction of a significant chunk of the world. For example, scenes in which Tolkien struggles to create words in his made-up language take on a certain poignancy when framed against the backdrop of the Great War, where there were simply no words to describe its impact on an entire generation of young men nearly wiped out by it, and language had to struggle to catch up in order to articulate or describe the unprecedented scope of devastation.
A straightforward biopic of JRR Tolkien, unauthorized and unsupported by his surviving family (yes, it matters, don’t get me started again) seems a bit of a waste. If creative licence had to be taken, and if the timeline of events had to be messed with, I feel like it would have made sense to tell a story in which the figure of Tolkien is more of a vehicle rather than the main subject. I guess what I’m trying to say, as I shrug my shoulders indifferently, is that it is a shame that the most intriguing thing about this film is the dots it leaves unconnected.