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We’ve already seen quite a few biographical films hit the market in 2019, and there’s definitely more to come through the rest of the year. And when making a biopic involving someone like legendary author J.R.R. Tolkien, there are obvious subjects that stand out as standard fodder for what seems like a routine errand. As it turns out though, Tolkien sidesteps the obvious subject of its titular author’s literary creation (you know, those crazy Hobbits), and instead focuses on something infinitely more appealing: the life he lived that inspired Middle Earth’s eventual existence.
Telling the story of J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) through his childhood of hardship and service in of World War I, Tolkien shows how through the love for one woman (Lily Collins), as well as four best friends from childhood (Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, and Tom Glynn-Carney), the author would create one of the greatest works in modern literature.
Having a story focused more on Tolkien as a person, rather than merely the creator of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is an approach that make biopics like Tolkien a better experience than a standard “greatest hits” biography. While director Dome Karukoski’s film, based on a script by writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, does indeed dance around the Middle Earth component of the author’s life, it’s in creative glimpses and teases.
That approach proves how well Tolkien understands that the more interesting part of the story isn’t its actual creation, but how life influenced J.R.R. Tolkien to make his mark on the world of literature and academia. The fashion that the film does so is also notable, as rather than winking and nudging at its audience, Tolkien gives enough details to let the audience pull things together for themselves.
Also working in the film’s favor is the fact that Tolkien partially feels like a biopic mixed in with a loose remake of Dead Poets Society. That’s not meant as an insult, as the fellowship that develops between Tolkien and his inspirational schoolmates is a friendship depicted so well, it acts as one half of the emotional compass that informs how the film depicts the inspiration of reality on the core of Middle Earth’s existence.
Boyle, Gibson, and Glynn-Carney all shine as the schoolmates that Hoult’s Tolkien adores as friends, and it should also be said that all four of Tolkien’s main fellowship actors have tip top chemistry with each other. Though it should also be noted that all of the actors’ performances also map well with those of their younger childhood counterparts, which only ties the emotional threads of Tolkien tighter and more effectively together.
The other strong anchor that grounds Tolkien as a particularly superb biopic is the romantic component between Nicholas Hoult and Lilly Collins, as Tolkien and his lifelong love Edith. The chemistry between Hoult and Collins is fantastic, and with the film’s script allowing for the relationship to blossom at a natural pace, this film doesn’t forget that not only are J.R.R. Tolkien’s inner motivations important to Tolkien’s story, but so are the people that inspired him on the outside.
Though the outer motivations are also shown through J.R.R. Tolkien's sketching and wild imagination, as both are artfully depicted in Tolkien's visual side. Seeing various creatures and fixtures of the Middle Earth realm coming to fruition as Tolkien imagines them is a particularly nice touch, all thanks to Karukoski's inventive new portrayals. As it's Tolkien's first imaginings of these concepts, their unique look helps separate the more famous aspects of Tolkien's creations from their previous motion picture counterparts. Rather than lean on what we've seen, Tolkien gives us something new to behold, and it's stunning.
Rather than play out as a paint-by-numbers biopic on a subject told time after time, Tolkien takes a popular franchise and hones in on the actual person behind its inception. It doesn’t allow itself to get carried away with the Lord of the Rings mythos, instead diving head first into the life and times of J.R.R. Tolkien’s experiences, and how they informed those classic tales. A stirring portrait of personal fellowship, and a tale of how the ravages of war can inspire a work of great triumph and light, Tolkien possesses the soulful nature that all biopics should aspire to capture.