★★★★ - STUFF
Falling somewhere in that vast hinterland between interesting-and-necessary-biopic and just-keep-flogging-that-pony, Tolkien arrives on the back of exactly the same marketing campaign we saw for last year's Goodbye Christopher Robin, the success of which I'd bet you a pint we now owe the existence of this movie.
You know how it goes: "You loved the books, now learn what inspired them." In Goodbye Christopher Robin, that meant a spectacularly dysfunctional childhood, a pretty hellish time at boarding school and then service in the trenches of the Great War that left AA Milne with what we would today call PTSD.
Tolkien charts a similar path, but with crucial and telling differences. It is also a film which blends the intrusion of the author's creations into its narrative with a subtlety and delicateness that the makers of Robin couldn't have located with a map. And, for that reason more than any other, I eventually came to like it a great deal.
Tolkien picks up the story as young John Ronald Reuel is about to be orphaned. His father died when JRR was only 3 years old. His mother then died when he was 12, leaving Tolkien and his younger brother in the care of a Catholic priest, who was apparently a kindly and generous soul throughout Tolkien's young life. Tolkien attended a prestigious school on a scholarship and, at the age of 16, fell besottedly in love with Edith Bratt, three years his elder, who lived in the same boarding house as the brothers.
Tolkien mucks the chronology around a little – he and Edith were engaged before he went off to the trenches – but compared to recent alleged biopics, it cleaves a lot closer to the truth than most.
And while long stretches of the film's second act seemed to involve lower stakes than are usual for the genre – Tolkien apparently had a terrific time at Oxford, with a group of friends who would be the template for the "fellowship" – the truth was he lived at the mercy of scholarship committees. He and Edith were also separated for three long years, which almost scuppered the relationship that later gave Tolkien the stability, family and joy he needed to write.
Later, as Tolkien is sent to the front, the film treads some horribly overfamiliar territory. I don't know if there is anything new cinematically that can be done with the Battle of the Somme, but if there is it escapes director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland – no, really).
Karukoski's decision to have the wounded and shocked Tolkien hallucinate wraiths and dragons on the battlefield could have been horribly misguided, but it's done with a mixture of restraint and flair that actually works very well.
I appreciated Tolkien for sticking mostly to the facts and not mythologising or fetishising pre-war Britain in the way myriad other films have. It's a quiet film this, but it hands Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins a couple of smartly written leads, while Colm Meaney and Derek Jacobi are both very welcome in support.
Tolkien has turned out about as well as it could.
-GRAEME TUCKETT, STUFF