‘Tolkien’ is a love letter to language

Biopic provides unlikely warmth and care to the life of famed fantasy author

2560px-tolkien-cast-by-gage-skidmore

The cast of "Tolkien" promotes the film at the 2019 WonderCon in Anaheim, California. 

Courtesy Gage Skidmore

Between film adaptations, countless copies of the original novels and its establishment as a staple of popular culture, it is hard to avoid the evolving saga of “The Lord of the Rings.” The legendary work of fantasy remains immensely popular, seeping its way into much of the contemporary discourse about fiction. The new film “Tolkien,” which was released May 10, plays into this romanticism as it follows the life of author J.R.R. Tolkien from his earliest years to his writing of the novels. 

With many biographical films, the line between fiction and reality is easily blurred, which often results in sappy, over-saturated tales of individuals beating the odds and working hard to rise above their situation in life and achieve greatness — despite what their lives may have actually looked like. While “Tolkien” is not innocent of these tropes, it separates itself from many others in the genre through its focus on the power of words. Rather than overly idolizing Tolkien as a singular genius, the film acknowledges the role of those around him in the creation of his works, particularly in how their stories and ideas about language shaped his own understanding. 

The film begins with a young Tolkien in the trenches during World War I, searching for an old friend. This moment is returned to throughout the film, as the time is split between this slow, dangerous journey and the formative events in his life that led up to it. As he navigates death, brotherhood and love, each person in his life presents a new take on what stories are able to do to those who hear them, regardless of time and space. Pieces of each interaction linger in subtle ways throughout the film, from shadows on the wall which make up the atmosphere of his mother’s storytelling to the musical ferocity of love interest Edith Bratt to the strength of brotherhood formed in the Tea Club Barrovian Society. 

For those who know the stories well, “Tolkien” is steeped in references to the novels which would eventually emerge from the various influences in the author’s life. However, they are discreet enough that those who may not be so well versed in the complexities of the world of “The Lord of the Rings” can still enjoy the film. The film speaks largely to the universality of storytelling, not merely the story of “The Lord of the Rings.” 

This angle was enhanced by several powerful performances which gave the film a particular edge. Nicholas Hoult’s quiet charm is captivating as the titular character J.R.R. Tolkien, bringing a spirit to the role which feels authentic and exciting. Also powerful was Lily Collins in the role of Edith Bratt, whose performance — equal parts ethereal and strong — spun together an interesting representation of women in the world of Tolkien. 

Though individual performances were strong, the film failed to fully escape the lure of melodrama in many instances. Though less overwhelmingly sappy than many biographical films, “Tolkien” still catered more to moments of grandeur than to gradual change and growth. The strategy of jumping from one exaggerated scene to the next felt tiring, and the film found its solid footing not in this approach but in the more rare moments of slowness and sincerity. Another issue with the back-and-forth structure was the lack of fulfillment in many of the smaller sections of the plot. When scenes lost their dramatic flair, they were abandoned — leaving the audience wondering about how certain threads played out. 

Though these moments of unsteadiness may have been slightly off-putting, the film is still worth a watch, even if only to appreciate the careful exploration of the role of language and stories in the fabric of a life. It is this idea which brings the most soul into “Tolkien,” as it emphasizes less the exact details of the author’s background and more the ideas which laid the foundation for the inspiration of his passionate writing. 

related stories