Facts matter in fictionalized films about famous writers, but only as much as that word “fictionalized” can comfortably allow. In the cliché-prone realm of the biopic, it’s hard enough to make writers (or anybody else) talk, act and feel like plausibly authentic, dramatically viable human beings, pulled inward by their imaginations, pulled outward by love, or cataclysm.
Good — the recent “Colette,” for example — is rare enough. Great — Bennett Miller’s “Capote” — is infinitely rarer.
With a faint plop, “Tolkien” lands in the marshy middle ground of disappointment. Without seeing it, the J.R.R. Tolkien estate denounced the film about the “Lord of the Rings” creator’s early years as something “they did not approve of, authorize or participate in.” Therefore, the estate’s representatives said in a harrumph of a statement, the heirs “do not endorse it or its content in any way.” (The estate’s recent $250 million deal with Amazon, granting the rights to a “Lord of the Rings” prequel series, was a different story.)
Preceded in 1937 by “The Hobbit,” Tolkien’s “Rings” trilogy remains the benchmark for a brand of world-building high fantasy we see playing out, in its outlandish, brutal-underbelly extremes, in the farewell season of “Game of Thrones.” As an origin story, “Tolkien” has plenty going for it. Its freewheeling version of how John Ronald Reuel Tolkien found love early, with his fellow orphan Edith Bratt, and endured the horrors of the Battle of the Somme in World War I, offers ready-made drama.
Nicholas Hoult portrays Tolkien, a Catholic; Lily Collins is Bratt, whose Protestant upbringing didn’t go down well with Tolkien’s guardian, Father Frances Morgan (Colm Meaney in a role more pinched than his disdainful expressions). Morgan blamed Bratt for distracting Tolkien from his studies, and after failing an Oxford entrance exam, disqualifying him from a scholarship, the priest forbade Tolkien from any contact with Bratt until he was 21.
He had his friends, though. A fellowship of like-minded writers and idealists was forged when Tolkien, poet Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle) and two others joined forces while attending school in gray, grimy Birmingham. Screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford imagine young Tolkien in 1916, at the Somme under fire, suffering from “trench fever” and envisioning massive, swirling dragons in the smoke and carnage. These are dragons from Tolkien’s own literary future.
Much of “Tolkien” is strictly boys’ club Neverland, as Tolkien and his male comrades debate their latest attempts at literary greatness. “We’ll change the world,” one says, “through the power of art!”
Tolkien did just that, but Finnish director Dome Karukoski struggles to find a rhythm amid the welter of flashbacks.
C.S. Lewis said it: Tolkien lived “inside language,” either English or the Elvish embroidery of his own devising . The movie seems peculiarly reticent about this crucial side of the writer’s personality. Too often, “Tolkien” lumbers up to its big moments, such as the preposterous climax involving the title character scrambling around the western front, calling out his schoolmate’s name. Fact or fiction isn’t the issue. Either way it plays like hokum.