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Tolkien: A fusty biopic about The Lord of the Rings writer

directed by Dome Karukoski

A biopic explaining how JRR Tolkien’s life shaped his books strains with the effort.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had a thing for speaking in tongues: Latin and Greek, bursts of Gothic and Icelandic, Old Saxon, Pre-Teutonic, High German. You name it and John Ronald plundered it for the languages of his Middle-earth. He was the original word nerd and gave birth to an entire subculture with his doorstop fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings. As one character in the fusty new biopic, Tolkien, proclaims: “Ah! Another gobbledygook speaker!”

JRR Tolkien is played by a rather bland Nicholas Hoult, and the film tracks his escape into linguistics and fantasy lands, which was sparked by trauma: fatherless at three, orphaned at 12, then ward of the Catholic Church until 21.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Smarts provide him a route out of penury, first to a posh boys’ school in Birmingham – an industrial pit resembling Mordor – then to the prettier surrounds of Oxford. From there, it’s off to the Somme battlefield of 1916 where, delirious with trench fever, he is beset by visions of fire-breathing dragons and cloaked cavalrymen amid the very real carnage.

Imagination and the act of creativity can be tricky things to nail down on film. Nevertheless, director Dome Karukoski is determined to map the outlines of The Lord of the Rings onto Tolkien’s life – regardless of whether it fits or not. Rather than a devoted biography, the film is a hotchpotch of shoehorned inspirations: The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs as a bedtime story, a failed visit to see Wagner’s Das Rheingold and so on. One scene, unconnected to anything else, has him in Oxford’s Exeter College library muttering, “Hmm … Middle-earth …”

Far more interesting than all that is Tolkien’s part in the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS) – a cadre of ambitious schoolboy aesthetes. Their naive conversations about art and literature are some of the film’s most bittersweet moments, because that fellowship was torn apart by World War I, which claimed half their number.

There’s a real sense of tragedy and grief in Tolkien’s final scenes, foreshadowing the sacrifice and loss in Frodo and Sam’s voyage to Mt Doom. Far more than philology textbooks or conlangs, it was the experience of getting through the war that Tolkien drew on to give his characters heart.



Video: 20th Century Fox NZ

This article was first published in the June 15, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.