Friday, May 10, 2019
'Tolkien' review: this perfunctory biopic turns real life into the stuff of fantasy
1 May 2019
A zing of excitement shot through the critical corps last week when the family and estate of JRR Tolkien publicly disavowed the new film about the Lord of the Rings author’s younger years. In a brisk statement, both parties noted that they “did not approve of, authorise or participate in” its production, adding that they did not “endorse it or its content in any way”.
Tantalising! Was the cosy image of the pipe-smoking don about to be up-ended? Did this mean that director Dome Karukoski, whose previous film retold the life story of the gay erotic artist Tom of Finland, was about to treat us to a kind of philologically inclined Sid & Nancy, or a Naked Lunch with hobbits?
Reader, it did not. Tolkien the film does not memorialise or re-contextualise Tolkien the man in any remotely interesting sense: instead, it just meekly prods him through the Theory of Everything-iser and hopes for the best. The result feels like a formulaic retread of that 2014 Stephen Hawking period piece – a kind of dewy-eyed biopic for dummies that frames its subject’s genius as the product of a “personal journey”, entailing in this instance three close male friendships, a grim spell in the trenches of the Somme and a mildly tumultuous love-life.
ote that these events aren’t deemed sufficiently interesting in their own right to serve as the substance for a literary weepie in the vein of Shadowlands. All that matters is how they relate to the hits.
olkien himself was famously averse to allegorical readings, and noted in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings that he preferred to think of his writing as a kind of “feigned” history, with “a varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers”. There can be no question that his experience as a battalion signalling officer in the trenches left an unmistakable, if diffuse, mark on his writing.