MOVIE REVIEW: Tolkien consigned to middle-of-the-road biopic
Director Dome Karukoski
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney
Running time 112 minutes
Verdict A good looking but disappointingly conventional biopic
Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins make an appealing screen couple, but Tolkien is too middle-of-the-road to really do justice to the creator of Middle-earth.
Perhaps the filmmakers should have taken a leaf out of their subject's book.
When a young J.R.R. Tolkien forms an artistic brotherhood with three like-minded students at King Edward's School, in Birmingham, their battle cry is adopted from Norse mythology.
"Hellheim" is the place soldiers go when they don't die an appropriately heroic death.
This handsome biopic would have benefited from some of that courageous spirit, which loosely translates as "go hard or go home".
By opting for a more careful, conventional route, director Dome Karukoski sells both his subject and his audience short.
Tolkien explores the "father of modern fantasy's" early, formative years.
After the premature deaths of both his parents, one from rheumatic fever, the other from diabetes, the orphan and his brother become the legal wards of a Catholic priest named Father Francis Xavier Morgan (Colm Meaney), who negotiates lodgings for them with a rich benefactress and an academically appropriate school.
Tolkien survives the often-brutal initiation into such a traditional, testosterone-heavy environment by using a combination of brains and brawn.
But the charity student really lands on his feet when he is embraced by a bunch of fellow misfits - headmaster's son and would-be painter Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), composer Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney) and poet Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle),
The latter's sexuality - and romantic feelings towards Tolkien - are handled exceptionally "tastefully" and with obliqueness that one might perhaps argue is appropriate for the time.
This exceptionally tight bunch discuss literature, philosophy and poetry on the lush leather lounge chairs of the Barrow's Stores tearoom until they graduate to Oxford and Cambridge.
Distracted by love and liquor, Tolkien's grades aren't what they should be, and the scholarship student is on the verge of getting thrown out, when he serendipitously crosses paths with Derek Jacobi's philology professor.
Adding romance to this already storybook situation is fellow orphan and lodger Edith Bratt (Collins), the mischievous, Wagner-loving pianist who became Tolkien's wife and who was the inspiration for the elven characters Luthien Tinuviel (The Silmarillion) and Arwen Evenstar (Lord Of The Rings).
The story is unfolds in flashback, as Tolkien, who is suffering from trench fever, hallucinates through the Battle of the Somme.
Flame throwers and creeping mustard gas combine with the Bruegelian horror of bodies piled on top of each other to inflame an already febrile imagination.
While filmmakers draw a clear link between this "animal horror" and the darkest fury of Tolkien's work, they lack their subject's flair or insight.