Tolkien opens with the noted author in the trenches of WW I, slithering through the mud and over the corpses of soldiers buried face up in puddles and perhaps killed by the poison gas wafting overhead.
The young officer (Nicholas Hoult) is fighting in France, but we are encouraged in these scenes to think of a land east of the Emyn Muil and just west of the Dagorlad plain, in the Dead Marshes where Frodo and Sam made their way to Mordor, also contending with poisoned air and the submerged bodies of fallen soldiers.
Tolkien himself insisted that his Lord of the Rings stories were unrelated to his life experiences and strictly the product of imagination, and his estate has distanced itself from this movie. But Tolkien is having none of that.
By the time the movie ends, subtle prodding has gone out the window, and the fever-mad Tolkien is seeing spectral horsemen and flying dragons over the battlefield. If Goodbye Christopher Robin had taken this approach, A.A. Milne might have found himself in the Somme fighting alongside Winnie-the-Pooh.
So, yes, Tolkien is a little on-the-nose. But there is also an undeniable appeal to the life-art allusions that drive this earnest movie, which is handsomely mounted, well-cast, and well-acted.
It begins with Tolkien’s happy, bucolic life in woodsy (the shire!) England; his deeply unhappy adolescence amid the belching factories of Birmingham (the old world will burn in the fires of industry!), from which he emerges an orphan, a ward of the church (Colm Meaney is his guardian/priest) who secures a spot in private school, where his amazing gift for language earns the admiration of classmates, three of whom join with Tolkien to form a close bond the movie helpfully refers to as a “fellowship.”
The way Tolkien keeps winking at LOTR buffs sometimes borders on comedy, but the movie really asks for a laugh only once, when Tolkien and his sweetheart Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) attend a Wagner opera and complain that it shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a ring.
In a world of fan fiction, Tolkien stands as something new — fan non-fiction. And it’s often kind of fun, despite its clanging obviousness. Hoult is an appealing actor, and has decent chemistry with Collins. Relationships with school friends are less well-drawn, and the movie’s time-fractured narrative means that half a dozen actors play the young men at different ages, so connections are not as deeply felt.
The movie is at its best when probing Tolkien’s mania (and genius) for languages, identified and nurtured at Cambridge by an eccentric professor (Derek Jacobi) who recognizes the young man’s singular gift and develops it, essentially saving the faltering student from flunking out.
Tolkien gives Jacobi some suspiciously ornate and perfect speeches about the beauty and importance of words, but Jacobi is having such an immensely good time in these scenes that it’s hard to quibble.
In the end, he presents young Tolkien with an intriguing idea — to highlight the beauty of ancient words and languages by fusing them with the equally beautiful ancient myths. That idea, the young Tolkien thinks, has a nice ring to it.
Tolkien. Directed by Dome Karukoski. Starring Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi. Distributed by Disney.
Parents guide: PG-13 (some sequences of war violence)
Run time: 1 hour, 52 mins.