We’re in World War I. A soldier stands in the trenches in the heat of battle. Memory and desire percolate in his brain. He has a fever. He’s looking for a lost friend.
His mind wanders back to the past – to the poverty of his childhood, the death of his mother, finding love…and then sacrificing it to go to college.
When he gets to Oxford, JRR Tolkien – for it is he – becomes friendly with three kindred souls. They’re all idealists. Artistic eccentrics, they form a society they believe will change the world.
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth, “to be young was very heaven.”
But storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. The war will change their lives irrevocably. Paradise has to be postponed, if not renounced altogether. Nostalgia becomes the substitute for idealism.
The orphaned author finetunes his love of language against the backdrop of a burgeoning love. A kindly priest (Colm Meaney doing a fine British accent) oversees his path towards self-definition. A university professor (Derek Jacobi) becomes a different kind of Svengali later on.
War is the conduit through which the emotionally vulnerable Tolkien stripmines the mother lode of his imagination. Soon he will write the magic sentence: “In a hole under the ground there lived a hobbit.” It will change his life, leading him to the “sacred place” of Middle Earth with Lord of the Rings.
This is a slow burner of a film. Some people might find it too leisurely but therein lies its charm. It doesn’t throw itself at us, maturing like a fine wine.
In Nicholas Hoult we have a new Hugh Grant. Or maybe even a new Daniel Day-Lewis. He bathes himself in his character without trying too hard. As Edith, Lily Collins is the ideal wife to help him realise his potential and become the person he has to be.
Dome Kanukoski’s film captures Tolkien before fame found him. The formative years of any icon’s life are often the most interesting. So it proves here. Tolkien is respectful of him both as a man and an artist.
That’s why I’m amazed the (litigious) Tolkien estate issued a statement saying it doesn’t endorse the film in any shape or form. “Tolkien (sic) has become a monster,” his son Christopher stated, “devoured by his popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time.”
I find this statement both melodramatic and precious. Authors are public property. Their families can’t expect people to read their books and not be interested in their lives.
If we take something like the recent Detainment, which exploited the horror of James Bulger’s death unashamedly without consulting his family, Christopher Tolkien’s point would be relevant. Tolkien is a totally different kettle of fish.
Don’t expect any fireworks – except on the battlefield – but this is still a quietly powerful biopic of one of the most groundbreaking authors of our time. Or any time.