AA Milne wouldn’t have created Winnie the Pooh, George Mallory wouldn’t have attempted to climb Mount Everest, and JRR Tolkien wouldn’t have written The Hobbit if it hadn’t been for the “Great War”. The evocative new biopic Tolkienfollows on from such films and books as Goodbye Christopher Robin and Wade Davis’s Into The Silence in foregrounding the effect that trench warfare had on the imaginations and aspirations of British writers, artists and explorers.
Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) is seen early on during the Battle of the Somme. He is shell-shocked and in a very frail condition but tells his colleagues he is going “up the line” to find a friend. The friend in question is the poet, Geoffrey Bache Smith, who had been at King Edward’s School in Birmingham with him. Both were members of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society (the TCBS), the tiny society they formed together with two other friends, Robert Gilson and Christopher Wiseman.
As Tolkien and another soldier wander through the trenches, the flashbacks to his youth begin. He is shown as a boy, play fighting with his brother and their friends in the woods. His childhood in rural England after a period in South Africa appears to have been idyllic in the extreme.
“Lock this all in your heart… lock it tight and it will be there forever,” Tolkien’s ailing mother tells him as the family’s “impecunious circumstances” force them to move away from his beloved countryside to Birmingham. Thanks to the intervention of a kindly priest, Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney), the two brothers are able to attend King Edward’s School.
Finnish director Dome Karukoski recreates early 20th century England in an extraordinarily lavish way. Whether it’s the satanic mills and factories of industrial Birmingham, the grounds of Tolkien’s public school, the spires of Oxford or even the tea rooms where he and his friends liked to meet, everything is depicted in loving and fetishistic detail. Hoult plays Tolkien as a high spirited and idealistic figure with an obvious genius for language.
At first, Tolkien and his posh and precocious new pals seem very smug. They all want to be poets or artists or musicians. There is an excruciating scene in which one of them proposes to a waitress, seemingly unaware that he is humiliating her. However, one of the benefits of having an outsider like Karukoski telling this story is that he isn’t as obsessed with class as a British director might have been. The film develops into a period version of a rites of passage story about youngsters on the verge of adulthood – a sort of Edwardian American Graffiti.
Tolkien and his friends form such a close-knit group that it’s a small miracle he has spare time to spend with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), the beautiful, Wagner-loving young piano teacher who lives in the same boarding house. The screenplay (by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford) makes it very clear that Edith’s passion for Wagner’s Ring cycle rubbed off on Tolkien and helped inspire the mythology found in his own novels. Her free-spirited approach to life also influenced him.
The Lord of the Rings author’s family have already disowned the film but it’s hard to see quite why. If it has taken liberties with its subject’s life, it has done so in order to make the film richer. Tolkien’s main dilemma is whether to concentrate on his studies at Oxford or to marry Edith. Father Francis refuses to allow him to do both. On its own, this wouldn’t make much of a story but the flashback structure and the continual shots of him during the Battle of the Somme add an extra layer of drama and pathos.
Wagner fires his imagination in one way. The horror he witnesses in the trenches traumatises him in one way but (it is implied) inspires him in another. He hallucinates that he sees white horses and monsters on the battlefield. The combination of his academic brilliance, his romantic obsession with Edith and his wartime suffering, pave the way for his fantasy novels.
Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings films, exchanged Middle Earth for the First World War with his recent documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old. This biopic shows the same journey in reverse. Whether or not the film satisfies the fans of Jackson’s movies or Tolkien’s books, or keeps his family happy, this is still a sympathetic and sensitive portrait of the novelist as a young man, evolving his creative vision. If you want to know where Bilbo Baggins came from, this is a good place to start.