The Tolkien Estate have taken against this biopic of the famous writer in no uncertain terms, but it’s hard to understand exactly why. As embodied by Nicholas Hoult, he’s an admirable fellow: handsome, witty and completely loyal to his friends – all attributes that he would eventually hand on to his fictional characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
The film concerns itself mostly with the writer’s early years: his childhood in Sarehole, Worcestershire (which would become the model for ‘The Shire’); his time at a boarding house in Birmingham, after the death of his mother, where he meets and eventually falls in love with fellow orphan, Edith Bratt (Lily Collins); and his school years at King Edward’s, Birmingham, where he and three close friends found a secret society, the TCBS. This fellowship continues when the boys go on to University, and it remains strong until the First World War intervenes and changes everything.
Director Dome Karukoski and screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford are keen to show how Tolkien’s horrific experiences at the Battle of the Sommes contributed to the imagery that would dominate his future books, and the sequences that depict mythical beasts rising from the carnage of trench warfare are perhaps the strongest scenes here, handsomely mounted and never overdone. Tolkien’s protracted courtship of Edith, while rather less spectacular, is also nicely handled, and Hoult and Collins make an engaging couple. There’s a nice cameo by Derek Jacobi as the Oxford Professor who encourages Tolkien to develop his flair for languages, and another from Colm Meaney as the Catholic priest charged with the responsibility of ensuring that things work out for Tolkien in the long run.
While it’s certainly a gentle and low key affair, I find the film absorbing and, ironically, much more interesting than the great books themselves, which – try as I might – I have never really managed to enjoy. Don’t tell the Tolkien Estate. They’ll probably sue me. For heresy.