“One of my strongest opinions,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a 1971 letter, “is that investigation of an author’s biography … is an entirely vain and false approach to his works.”
While one could contest this arguably overbroad generalization, one would hope for a better exhibit to make that argument than Tolkien, a well-appointed, decorous biopic from Finnish director Dome Karukoski and writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford.
Tolkien is not a bad movie. Starring a quietly intense Nicholas Hoult as John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and an engaging Lily Collins as Edith Bratt, the future Mrs. Tolkien, it would go nicely on a shelf somewhere between Finding Neverland and Dead Poets Society.
In this case, of course, it’s Finding Middle-earth, and Tolkien’s literary circle of friends call themselves the T.C.B.S., or “Tea Club, Barrovian Society.” In place of Carpe diem, the Dead Poets’ motto, the T.C.B.S. mantra is Helheimr! — literally the Norse realm of the dead, but, trust me, they mean Carpe diem.
Drawing on events spanning 30 years of Tolkien’s life, the film focuses primarily on 12 crucial years from the sudden loss of his mother, Mabel (Laura Donnelly), in 1904 to diabetes to the 1916 Battle of the Somme in the First World War.
In a sense the Somme spans most of the film, with Tolkien’s school days and youthful romance with Edith related in a series of extended flashbacks, followed by a postwar denouement.
At the Somme, amid a hellish landscape of trenches and bodies, Lt. Tolkien searches for a fellow soldier, an old friend and fellow T.C.B.S. member named Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle) whose mother back home is worried about him.
In flashback, the orphaned young John Ronald (Harry Gibley) and his younger brother Hilary find a new home with the support of a Catholic priest, Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meany), who becomes their guardian, and begin attending the prestigious King Edward’s School in Birmingham. (If you know Tolkien’s biography well, you may notice there’s already some reorganizing and eliding of events.)
At their new home, a spacious Edwardian boarding house run by a Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris), Tolkien meets another orphaned resident, young Edith (Mimi Keene), who plays piano for her landlady and confides to Tolkien that she longs to escape.
At King Edward’s, Tolkien meets the three indispensable friends — Smith, Robert Q. Gilson and Christopher Wiseman, for whom Tolkien’s eldest son was named — with whom he will form the T.C.B.S. (The club was named for a department store named Barrows with a tea room that was a favorite haunt for the boys, not unlike the Eagle and Child pub at Oxford for the Inklings, the literary circle that included Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.)
“We should form a club — a brotherhood,” Tolkien remarks. Later someone says, “This is more than just a friendship; this is an alliance — an invisible alliance.” If these nouns make you think of another word of Tolkienesque significance (“Just say it already!” my son James muttered about halfway through), rest assured the filmmakers are waiting for just the right moment to deploy it.
The film has been crafted with meticulous care, from loving period production design and thoughtful costuming to Lasse Frank’s atmospheric cinematography.
From the artfully lit grit and haze of the Somme, accented with surreal images of fairy-tale menace or nobility suggesting rather than overtly invoking The Lord of the Rings, to the splendor of the hotel dining room where Tolkien and Edith discuss language and mischievously throw sugar cubes at hats, Tolkien is always a pleasure to look at.
Middle-earth fans will spend a lot of time pausing shots of the scraps of artwork covering the walls of Tolkien’s room, decoding the dwarf-runes, trying to make out details of the maps, and comparing drawings of elf-princesses and giant spiders to Tolkien’s later artwork.
The high-spirited antics and banter of the T.C.B.S. and the restrained chemistry between Tolkien and Edith can be engaging. Standout scenes include Edith pressing Tolkien to turn his love of the sound of cellar door (or perhaps “Celledor”) into a story and a botched date that turns into an exuberant staging of Wagner unlike anything I can remember.
Yet Tolkien’s defining love of language never comes into focus in a memorably cinematic way. There are movies in love with poetry and language — Bright Star and Paterson are relatively recent examples — but Tolkien is more about the idea of being in love with poetry and language, which is not the same thing.
We see Tolkien at Oxford poring over an old book muttering “Middle-earth,” but there’s no interest in what Middle-earth is in the middle of. (It’s from an Old English cognate to the Norse Midgard, i.e., the world between the Northern ice and the Southern fire.)
Nearly all fact-based films introduce fictional elements and invented drama, and all without exception must make choices about what to include or omit. Unhappily, among the omissions is all but the barest mention of the role of Catholicism in Tolkien’s life — as it happens, a source of significant drama.
We never learn that the reason for the Tolkiens’ financial distress, or “impeculiar circumstances,” as Mabel whimsically puts it, is the family’s outrage over Mabel’s conversion to Catholicism.
Tolkien would later consider his mother a martyr to her family’s opprobrium fidei, and his deep attachment to his faith throughout his life was linked in part to the trauma of losing his mother.
The film is interested in the T.C.B.S. as an inspiration for the Fellowship of the Ring and in Edith as an inspiration for the elf-princess Lúthien Tinúviel — a key shot of Edith dancing in the woods appears more than once — but of the Virgin Mary, an important inspiration for Galadriel, there is not so much as a Madonna statue or a snatch of a Hail Mary. (A glimpse of a life-size crucifix amid the dream imagery of the Somme sequences is the one visual nod to the sacred.)
Father Morgan has an intriguing line about the liturgy, deeming “modern words” useless when it comes to comforting the grieving, but neither liturgy nor prayer makes an onscreen appearance. There’s no hint of the Eucharist, the reality behind the elven “waybread” or lembas. (Even when the other boys at King Edward’s dutifully sing Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise in chapel, Tolkien himself, perhaps adjusting to his new environment, doesn’t sing.)
Religion is so unimportant that when Father Morgan objects to Tolkien’s romance with Edith in part on the grounds that “she isn’t even Catholic,” some viewers may not understand that it was Tolkien, not Edith, who was outside the religious mainstream of the day.
To what extent does Tolkien’s de facto secularity color its portrayal of Father Morgan or of Tolkien’s relationship with him?
When the priest forbids Tolkien to have anything more to do with Edith until he comes of age, Tolkien agitatedly accuses him of being “jealous”: “You’re a priest; you don’t know anything about love.”
Although he honors his guardian’s authority, when Tolkien finally reconnects with Edith, he calls doing so “the biggest mistake of my life.”
In fact Tolkien professed never to have regretted obeying his guardian. The movie notably depicts Father Morgan later offering Tolkien a near-apology, saying that he was “right to pursue” Edith, but Tolkien never apologizes for accusing the priest of knowing nothing of love.
In passing, I find it hard to imagine the real Tolkien using such a clichéd phrase as “the biggest mistake of my life,” or for that matter saying “jealous” if he meant “envious.”
Digging deeper, where Tolkien distinguished sharply between “quest” and “adventure” (The Hobbit is an adventure, The Lord of the Rings a quest), the film’s Tolkien uses them synonymously, suggesting that The Hobbit is “about quests … the journeys we go on to prove ourselves.”
Perhaps this is digging too deeply for a movie review. Still, Tolkien has always invited and even demanded such digging. Tolkien isn’t without its pleasures, but they’re mostly on the surface.
Caveat Spectator: Intense, graphic battlefield sequences; some cursing; brief artistic representations of nudity; a suggestive gesture. Teens and up.