Published May 09, 2019In the world of high fantasy literary epics, The Lord of the Rings stands firmly atop the canon. The makers of Tolkien know this, which is why they give this biopic of Lord of the Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien dramatic heft akin to the subject's own fictional works. But Tolkien's upbringing, as an orphan in Edwardian-era England and student at Oxford, is, of course, nothing compared to the action-packed quest of Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship, which is precisely why the film frames it amongst scenes of Tolkien fighting at the Battle of the Somme in World War I. But without the fear of death — an unavoidable biopic pitfall — the stakes feel remarkably low, all things considered.
The story is sold by Nicholas Hoult in the title role, who's convincing enough as an underdog, albeit not a scrappy one. Much of the film's selling point is to discover the people and places of Tolkien's youth that influenced his bestselling works, and his "brotherhood" of three best friends: his fellow foster child-turned-love interest Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) and a wartime companion named Sam, whom Tolkien enlists in a mid-battle quest to find his missing friends. Occasional, delirium-induced glimpses of the dragons, spires and tree-giants that would later populate Tolkien's writings make for fun visual surprises in contrast to the gritty, realistic war scenes.
But beyond the "a-ha" moments whenever the lore of Middle-earth slowly makes its presence known, there's not much to dig into. While well-acted, scenes of Tolkien and his privileged, prep school buddies running around Birmingham and musing about art and philosophy are hard to relate to. It's a thoroughly unremarkable retelling of a mildly interesting story.
The relationships between the characters are the most compelling part, notably the star-crossed relationship between Hoult's Tolkien and Collins' Bratt, as well as Tolkien's friendship with aspiring poet Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle), which leads to one of the more tender on-screen portrayals of young male friendship. But ultimately, it all feels very self-serving, and not worth the weight it's given.
By ending with Tolkien starting to work on The Hobbit, the payoff is all implication, and with little shown of what makes this particular tale exceptional. Despite the singular role Tolkien's work occupies in pop culture ubiquity, the story of Tolkien fails to address any of that.