Lily Collins

Tolkien

04/05/19

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.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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To the Bone

19/07/17

Honestly, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to watch this film, and might not have done had the weather been nicer, had I not already seen all Cineworld had to offer, and had I not imposed upon myself a ‘Dry July’ and thus removed the option of going to the pub. I’d read Hadley Freeman’s scathing review in The Guardian and feared it might be a misogynistic, voyeuristic old mess. But, actually, this Netflix Original well exceeded my expectations, and I think it merits a (cautiously) positive response.

To be clear, I have no personal experience of eating disorders, and am in no way dismissing Freeman’s more informed opinion. Hers is the insider’s view. But, from an outsider’s perspective, this film ain’t bad at all.

It tells the tale of Ellen (or Eli), played with frail intensity by Lily Collins (last seen as Red, an animal rights activist in Okja, looking a lot healthier than she does here). Ellen has suffered from anorexia for years; the film begins with her leaving a treatment centre, and moving in with her half-sister, Kelly (Liana Liberato) and stepmother, Susan (Carrie Preston). It’s clearly an awkward fit: although Ellen and Kelly get on very well, Ellen finds Susan insensitive and unhelpful.  But she has little choice: her father, who ostensibly lives in the same house, is wholly absent from the film, and  her mother, Judy (Lili Taylor), who has recently relocated to Phoenix with her partner, Olive (Brooke Smith), is adamant that she “cannot deal” with Ellen’s problems in her life. In desperation, frightened by Ellen’s plummeting weight and left alone to cope with it, Susan makes a last-ditch attempt to find a solution, and settles on the in-patient therapy offered by unorthodox doctor, William Beckham (Keanu Reeves).

Actually, Dr Beckham doesn’t seem to do much at all. He talks honestly to Ellen without pulling any punches; he tells her that, if she continues as she is, it won’t be long before she dies. Beyond that, it’s hard to see what the actual treatment is. There’s an attempt to make mealtimes less stressful (the in-patients all have to sit at the dinner table, but they’re not compelled to eat), and a calm and caring atmosphere is created in the centre. Ellen makes friends there, most notably the intensely irritating Luke (Alex Sharp), whose know-it-all attitude is sickeningly patronising – although Ellen doesn’t seem to notice, so perhaps that’s just me – but still, it’s not made clear how this place and process help.

But I don’t think the film is really about that: it’s not a treatment manual. It’s more an exploration of the impact and effects of this terrible condition, both on the sufferers and on those around them. Characters that begin as almost comic caricatures (e.g. Susan) are revealed as complex and conflicted, struggling to deal with watching Ellen self-destruct. Judy’s anguish is made clear too, in a later scene, as is Ellen’s fear and her inability to stop.

Freeman condemns the film for glamourising anorexia (“it’s not all thigh gaps and eyeliner”), and there’s no denying that Collins looks beautiful most of the time. But I’m not sure that’s this film’s fault: as scarily skinny as she is in this, Collins looks exactly like a lot of film stars and fashion models; her big-eyed, sharp-jawed face is not alien at all. She’s the epitome of what we’re told is good. And maybe, just maybe, that’s an important point to make.

I don’t think this is a film that purports to have the answers. I think it’s just a story, a tragic tale of one girl’s life. Of course, that doesn’t let it off the hook. But it seems to be a tale well-told, even if there is no universal truth revealed.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield