This biopic based on the early life of acclaimed author J.R.R. Tolkien is fascinating when it concentrates on the author’s fascination with language but it feels a stretch too far to make his ideas with regards to Lord of the Rings coming from his experiences of World War One.

Filled with vivid imagery and intelligent conversation, Dome Karukoski’s biopic of J.R.R Tolkien’s early years and friendship with a group of fellow artists and writers at his school is undeniably thoughtful and filled with plenty of emotive moments. However, there are times when it feels as though David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford’s script tries too hard to make ideas relating to The Lord of the Rings fit in with Tolkien’s life.

This is particularly evident in the early scenes of the film which flit between Tolkien’s experiences during World War I – interposing images of dragons and other characters associated with The Lord of the Rings within the battle scenes that heighten a sense of drama – but don’t quite sit comfortably with the powerfully haunting images of war captured beautifully through Lasse Frank’s cinematography. This flitting backwards and forwards from the past through the death of Tolkein’s mother to the war also doesn’t give the film a clear starting point that takes time to settle down.

However, despite this there is plenty to be appreciated about this film that while doesn’t have the endorsement of the Tolkien estate has been intelligently thought out and offers a real insight into Tolkien’s fascination with language that very much occupied a great deal of his life. This is reflected perfectly in the scene in which he meets Professor Joseph Wright – the way in which they discuss how language can adapt and change is a particularly thought provoking moment.

But it is also a film about friendship and really captures the bond between Tolkien and his school friends Geoffrey Bache Smith, Robert Q. Gilson and Christopher Wiseman that is torn apart when war breaks out. Each are isolated in their own ways but are strongly supportive towards each other – despite their occasional differences – the scenes in which they all lark about are particularly effective and nicely captured. Meanwhile, it would have been nice to have more attention paid to Tolkien’s relationship with Edith that feels slightly pushed to the side – given the way initially she challenges his ideas about language. It is a relationship filled with ups and downs and could have been explored in more detail.

The performances are all solid and engaging to watch as the story unfolds. Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien delivers a deep and thoughtful performance as the author, highlighting the many different aspects of his personality with great charisma, while Lily Collins as Edith is equally as strong if slightly underused – she is a lively force to be reckoned with as the scenes in which she confronts Tolkien’s attitude towards his writing and the effect it has on their relationship reveal. There is also a lovely performance from Anthony Boyle as the sensitive and charming poet Geoffrey Bache Smith that reflects the bond between Tolkien and Smith engagingly.

It has its flaws but Tolkien is a film that is a thoughtful, insightful and sensitive portrayal of Tolkien’s early years that will make audiences find more out about the author on their own as well as re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

By Emma Clarendon

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

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