Tolkien a banal tribute to the novels

Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins play writer J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife in the biopic Tolkien.
Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins play writer J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife in the biopic Tolkien.PHOTO: FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

REVIEW / BIOGRAPHY

TOLKIEN (PG)

112 minutes/Showing at The Projector/2 stars

The story: In this account of the life of Lord Of The Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, the formative years are looked at, from his childhood to just after World War I. The film opens as Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult), an infantry officer, is in France during one of the war's deadliest clashes, the Battle of the Somme. In the midst of the fighting, he flashes back to his youth. As a boy, he and a younger brother are cared for by their mother Mabel (Laura Donelly). They are happy in their quaint country village, but following the death of their father in South Africa, the family is uprooted and forced to move to the industrial city of Birmingham.

The makers of this film are determined that viewers never forget that this is a movie about the writer of the much-loved fantasy novels The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit.

References to the books are scattered throughout like video-game Easter eggs. Here is a computer-generated shadow of a dragon, hiding in the smoke and flame of the Somme battlefield. There, in the greenery of Tolkien's village home, can be seen where he first got the idea of the Shire, while in Birmingham's industrial hellscape can be glimpsed Mordor, home to the evil lord Sauron. The One Ring of power? Tolkien got that when he was at the opera to see Wagner's Ring Cycle.

And it goes on. This is the movie equivalent of taking a tour bus around Liverpool to see where John and Paul got their inspiration to write Penny Lane or Strawberry Fields Forever.

Except that the tour would probably be more factual than this attempt at drawing a straight line between real people, places and events and fictional ones. The spoon-feeding does not just feel silly and pandering, it is distracting - as in a video game, Easter egg-hunting draws attention away from the key story.

The key story here is that Tolkien's inner life was illuminated by two vital relationships: The one with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), the woman who would become his wife, and the one with three school chums, with whom he would get the idea that a fellowship would form the spine of his Middle Earth novels.

Finnish director Dome Karukoski's attempt at blending book life with real life goes into overdrive in the overlong scenes of a pale, sickly Tolkien slogging across the muck of the Somme, searching for a lost buddy, with the help of an orderly from a working-class background.

Those scenes are another reference. Most would get that almost immediately, but in sledgehammer fashion, the film insists on showing at least 20 more minutes of Frodo's, sorry, Tolkien's muddy quest.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2019, with the headline 'Tolkien a banal tribute to the novels'. Print Edition | Subscribe