It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I was giddy and literally thrumming with excitement to see Tolkien, Fox Searchlight Picture’s new biopic based on John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s life. I’ve seen director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. I’ve read the books. I quote them both regularly (sometimes just to my cats when I’m bingeing the movies back to back, but you know, to other humans, too.) It’s even my personal goal this year to read (or reread) everything the author has written.
So, believe me when I say that I’ve been counting down the days until May 10 for months. And I wasn’t disappointed. Was it one biopic to rule them all? Meh, I wouldn’t go that far. But did it kick me right in the feels? Yes. Did it shine a light on one of the greatest authors and literary minds in the history of foreverrrr? Yes. Have I seen it twice? Yes.
Directed by Dome Karukoski, the biographical film is basically a love story. It begins with Tolkien’s (played by the not-so-tough-to-look-at Nicholas Hoult) love for home and family. As he gets older, it becomes a story about the author’s love for his friends — his fellowship, if you please — and then his love for the enchanting Edith Bratt (Lily Collins). Tolkien’s legendary love for language, story, and imagination is the undercurrent running through it all. There’s also a rather intense and visual love affair with trees? Idk. (The whole tree thing is somehow apt and … a lot all at once.)
At times, it’s (intentionally) tough to tell what is reality, what is memory, and what is fantasy, giving the movie a sometimes surreal quality. You’ll see the Dead Marshes, dragons, Shadowfax, and even the Nazgûl. The imagery can seem cheesy if you examine it too closely. Don’t. Just suspend some belief and let the story carry you where it wants to. The movie is not a documentary, and it’s unfair for anyone to expect that of it.
Tolkien is heavy and serious; it’s fun and whimsical; it’s hilarious and heartbreaking. From the author’s childhood hijinks, “intellectual” chats with his closest friends, and his budding romance with Edith to the life he starts to build at Oxford and the time he spends at war, there is something for everyone. The movie is easy to love — as long as you don’t try to do too much fact-checking.
To quote The Hobbit (yes, I’m doing this, and you know you want me to so hush): “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” Simply put, if you go into this movie looking for something super specific — wondering how the cast and director will depict this or that obscure thing — you will undoubtedly be disappointed at some point. There just isn’t time. Call it spin or extreme filtering, but it really just comes down to run time.
At this point, Tolkien is larger than life. There are so many biographies and think-pieces and microscopic takes on his career that it would be impossible to include everything. The director had to be selective to tell the story he wanted to; he admitted as much (without apology) during a Q&A following a film screening at the Montclair Film Festival (pictured above). I, for one, am not mad about it.
It’s fairly safe to say that many of the people who are going to see this movie could be described as Tolkien nerds. (I see you!) Those viewers aren’t likely to discover anything *new* on the screen. It’s quite noteworthy, then, that the film still managed to both utterly wreck and delight me.
Case in point: I know that Tolkien loses some of his friends in the war because it’s been rumored that that’s why the four hobbits all live. So, from the moment the quartet ships out, I am waiting for it to happen. Between the building tension, the imagery, and Hoult’s raw emotion as he searches for one of them during the Battle of the Somme, it was all I could do not to outright sob onto the kind sir sitting next to me. (I was mildly successful. There were a lot of shudders and sniffles and closing of eyes but I made it through. Kind of. Not really but don’t come for me.)
On the other hand, viewers less familiar with Tolkien’s legend may find themselves a little wanting, as certain details are mentioned in passing, just scratching the surface of the author’s long life.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf tells Frodo, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” I don’t know about you, but seeing this movie (again) definitely makes my list.
Photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures