Great biopics about writers often exercise considerable poetic license — for after all, there’s not much cinematic excitement to be found in showing the author taking pen to paper, or pounding away at the typewriter, right?
Springing from the brilliant mind of Tom Stoppard, “Shakespeare in Love” recast the Bard as a dashing lead, romancing Gwyneth Paltrow, er, Viola de Lesseps, while writing “Romeo and Juliet.”
Rob Reiner turned Stephen King’s “Misery” into a horror-thriller for the ages. Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” was an absurdist, inside-out take on the sometimes maddening process of adapting a best-seller for the big screen.
Even the quickly forgotten but admirably inventive “The Man Who Invented Christmas” (2017) re-imagined a certain period in Charles Dickens’ life as an almost scene-by-scene inspiration for “A Christmas Carol.”
“Tolkien” decides the best way to tell the story of the author (Nicholas Hoult) of the beloved and massively popular and wildly imaginative Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books is to concentrate on his tragic youth, his prep school and college days hanging around with a bunch of posh and loud and obnoxious lads who aren’t nearly as dashing and charming as they fancy themselves to be, and his hellish experiences in the trenches of France in World War I.
Oh, and there’s a chaste romance with his future wife Edith, who is played by Lily Collins, who in recent weeks has played the love interests of Ted Bundy and now J.R.R. Tolkien, and how about somebody give this wonderful actress a role other than the love interest sometime soon?
The result is a well-acted, competently made, utterly tedious bore of a film lacking in creative spark, unwilling to take chances and determined to grind Tolkien through the muck and the blood of war and death at the expense of providing much insight into his creative process.
Yes, Tolkien enjoyed a “fellowship” with his colleagues, and yes, we see glimpses of his fanciful sketches. Thanks.
But when Tolkien and Edith banter about imaginary characters while seated in a fancy British club, or when Tolkien the soldier sees visions of warriors on horseback and flying dragons in the blackened skies over France, it’s as if the filmmakers felt compelled to toss in some writer-in-the-making stuff amidst all the ponderous biopic-ing.
“Tolkien” keeps jumping back and forth between Lt. Ronald Tolkien’s desperate (and quite ill-conceived) search for an old chum while battling a life-threatening sickness and dodging heavy enemy fire, and his boyhood days as an orphan mentored by the stern but kindly Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney), who arranges for young Ronald to be taken in at a boarding house and encourages the gifted lad to fulfill his academic potential.
After the obligatory rough start where the outcast orphan kid is bullied and mocked by the jerky prepsters, only to win them over with his general good guy-ness, Ronald becomes fast friends with Geoffrey (Anthony Boyle), Christopher (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Robert (Patrick Gibson), and if you asked me to discern one from the other in a movie line-up, all I can tell you is they all have fantastic hair and each has a little bit of an issue, but they exist mainly to throw their arms around each another and pledge to be loyal through thick and thin.
Cut to another scene of Lt. Tolkien, covered in blood and mud, slithering through trenches, calling out his buddy’s name as if he’s somehow going to track him down among the thousands of brave British soldiers taking heavy fire from the enemy.
When “Tolkien” does engage in flights of fancy, e.g., a scene were Ronald and Edith are denied entry to a performance of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle for lack of funds and then sneak backstage, where they don costumes and sing along, it feels forced and lacking in magic.
Hoult and Collins, both fine actors, never really succeed in presenting a love story for the ages. At times their union seems inevitable due more to circumstances and mutual respect than can’t-live-without-you, lasting romance.
If you’re going to tell the story of one of the most imaginative writing minds of the 20th century, why not infuse it with more … imagination?
Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Dome Karukoski and written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford. Rated PG-13 (for some sequences of war violence). Running time: 111 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.