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Film review: Tolkien

10 May 2019

Stephen Brown reviews the new Tolkien biopic

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Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins as J. R. R. Tolkien and Edith Bratt in Tolkien

Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins as J. R. R. Tolkien and Edith Bratt in Tolkien

IT’S probably an advantage when viewing Tolkien (Cert. 12A) to know nothing much about the Lord of the Rings author. That way you probably won’t be upset by potential inaccuracies. Generally speaking with films, it is a matter of not letting facts interfere with a rattling good story. It didn’t harm Darkest Hour (Arts, 19 January 2018), despite numerous departures from the reality of Churchill’s wartime premiership.

In the case of Tolkien, the author’s estate has refused to endorse the film, even though it owes much to Humphrey Carpenter’s “authorised” biography and several related books. Perhaps the issue is more a dislike of what Tolkien majors on at the cost of neglecting other salient influences in his life — in particular, his faith.

Essentially, we are given a love story with a few nods to where the writer drew his inspiration for characters and plots. The result diminishes John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s deeply held religious convictions (Features, 3 May). His father’s early death left his mother, Mabel (Laura Donnelly), to bring up two boys, before dying herself when Ronald was only 12. Originally Baptist, she had become a Roman Catholic. Thus we can see the connection with the kindly Fr Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney). He becomes the children’s guardian, settling them in the home of Mrs Faulkner (Pam Ferris) with another orphaned child, Edith Bratt, played by Mimi Keene. Later, Morgan counsels Ronald to stay away from the adult Edith (Lily Collins), then a Protestant, till finishing his degree.

The film opens with combat scenes reminiscent of Goodbye Christopher Robin (Arts, 6 October 2017), in which a similarly war-scarred A. A. Milne transcends his traumas by way of inventing another world, that of the Hundred Acre Wood. Here, Tolkien converts his own hellish visions of trench conflict into scenarios of Middle-earth battles. Tolkien tells Edith that he likes stories about journeys, “the journeys we take to prove ourselves”, but the narrative never develops its religious dimension. Wagner’s Ring is substituted as stimulating Tolkien’s magnum opus.

We also get knowing allusions to other sources. His earnest young “Tea Club” friends are prototypes for the subsequent Fellowship of the Ring. Morgan, his religious mentor, is something of a model for Gandalf. Tolkien fans may well enjoy making such connections, but for those less enamoured of the stories, it is the love affair that will touch their hearts. Nicholas Hoult’s sensitive performance as the adult Tolkien convincingly combines a fierce intelligence with a lasting devotion to Edith.

The Finnish director, Dome Karukoski, ensures that we don’t end up with a stereotypical British heritage movie. But, by forgoing a serious examination of Ronald’s lifelong faith, Karukoski throws out the baby with the bathwater. In a 1953 letter, Tolkien stated that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” written in the hope that the religious element was sufficiently absorbed into the story for it to predispose readers to the truth of the gospel. There is not much chance that this film will do the same.

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