The film Tolkien is the story of Tolkien’s formative years. Born in 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was orphaned at the age of 12 and he and his brother Hilary came under the guardianship of a priest who then placed them, when Tolkien was 16, in the house of Mrs Faulkner. The brothers attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham and it was there that Tolkien met the three friends who would form the fellowship (The Tea Club and Barrovian Society – TCBS) which is one of the main themes of the film. Love is another theme, personified by Edith Bratt, also an orphan and engaged as companion to Mrs Faulkner; their friendship blossomed into a lifelong love. Through all this shines Tolkien’s overwhelming love of language, stories, and magic.
The Tolkien story is told in a series of flashbacks as Tolkien lies wounded and feverish in the trenches, desperate to find Geoffrey, one of the fellowship who is in a nearby trench. Initially ostracised at school as the impoverished outsider, Tolkien is accepted and the four boys, all aspiring to artistic careers, encourage and support each other. This continues when they go to university, two of them (including Tolkien) to Oxford and two to Cambridge; Tolkien has by this time been forced by his guardian to give up Edith and concentrate on his studies. He flounders at first, only finding his niche after a chance encounter with a professor of Old English whose class he is able to join. When he hears Edith has become engaged, he writes to her telling her he still loves her; she breaks off her engagement and waits for him. The war, however, has terrible consequences for the fellowship: two are killed, Christopher the musician is traumatised and barely composes again and Tolkien takes nearly 20 years to publish his masterpieces.
The acting is faultless - Nicholas Hoult, no longer a boy but a tall, sensitive young man, perfectly embodies the tortured, brilliant Tolkien and Lily Collins is superb as the pert Edith. Special mention should be made of Hoult and Derek Jacobi (Professor Joseph Wright) who had to learn to speak Middle English. The cinematography is striking, and while there are no direct references to Tolkien’s books there are hints of what is to come. You see his bedroom walls covered in pictures, in some of the war scenes – all red and angry – dragons are hinted at in the smoke and the fire, horses with hooded riders gallop across the scene.
The Tolkien family have distanced themselves from this production but Finnish director Dome Karukoski makes no excuses for his manipulation of the facts for the sake of artistic cohesion. To him the film embodies the essence of the young Tolkien; why and how he became a master storyteller. It is a luscious, engaging film and, unless you are a purist, thoroughly enjoyable.