Maurice Beaulieu, of the Florida Catholic staff
Orlando | If viewers head to the theatres this May with an expectation to see a grand story of how John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s Catholic faith had helped him throughout his life, they will leave the cinema displeased. The filmmakers completely left out Tolkien’s association with faith to express instead a depiction of war-torn battlefields, comradery, and romance that inspired his writings.
“Tolkien,” a Fox Searchlight Pictures production helmed by famed Finnish director Thomas “Dome” Karukoski, attempts to tell a complete narrative encompassing the youth of the legendary fantasy writer. The majority of the story is a result of flashbacks to his younger days as he lies scared and muddy in the trenches of war. After a roughly heavy 30-minute prologue of Tolkien’s childhood filled with his mother’s passing and his formation of a secret artsy club with school friends who will influence his most famous books, the film jumps several years forward to Tolkien as a student at Exeter College, Oxford, obsessing over language and enjoying the nightlife with his drinking buddies.
Nicholas Hoult, primarily known for his acting credits in the recent X-men series, plays Tolkien as expressionless as an Ent. Thankfully, his love interest, Edith (played expertly by the porcelain doll-faced, Lily Collins) takes charge of their scenes together. As much as “Tolkien” is a biopic about how the events of The Great War and childhood friendships motivate him to tell his epics, it is the love story at its core that delivers the most inspiration. Like Tolkien, the young girl, Edith Bratt, is an orphan. Without Edith’s constant positivity throughout the film and her genuine love of Tolkien when he departs for the blood-soaked trenches of WWI France, Tolkien’s fate might have been different. Her passion for the Arts (a piano prodigy with a flair for Chopin and critical information of a Wagner opus) matches Tolkien’s and the other trio of friends in his circle. A touching scene when the two are denied entrance to a symphony Edith yearns to attend is filmed beautifully, highlighting their passion for one another as they dance and kiss in the opera house basement.
While the attractive cinematic pans of twisting forest trees, and the inner and outer aesthetics of England’s gorgeous buildings are prominent in every movie frame, the director employed his background to a saturation point where the wrapping overshadowed the gift. Talented as the 42-year-old Finland native is, “Dome’s” first Hollywood-backed production feels just that: too “Hollywood.” The last decade (and more) has been hijacked by uber-successful CGI superheroes and video game films, genres known more for their ability to highlight the VFX department’s skills to conjure the impossible than to tell stories with heart. In contrast, nonfiction biopics dominate these days through nostalgia, wrongly rewarding average acting performances with accolades and nominations. “Tolkien” hoped to merge both genre aspects in one film — fantastical visuals with critical recognition. Yet, it falls short.
“Tolkien” is an experience that never allows you to forget why you are watching this film. There is a “wink-wink” moment in nearly every line of dialogue that slogs thick of novice writing and yawns itself to sleep with desperate metafiction. Therein lies the problem most biopics suffer from: too much self-awareness used too often. “Tolkien” is a mere by-the-numbers biopic viewers likely have seen dozens of times. Some would call it too safe and formulaic—and they would be right. Rather than correctly choosing one specific moment from Tolkien’s life to express his failures and renaissances, the writers decide to use numerous flashbacks to attempt to keep the story from dulling. The several illusions of fire-breathing dragons (German soldiers spraying flamethrowers) and visions of smoke-like demons on the battlefield (obvious symbols of war influencing Tolkien’s Middle-earth villains) try to mix the fantasy with reality, but only serve purpose if appreciated by the viewers who already know his catalogue. It is a movie specifically made for Tolkien fans rather than a proper biopic that welcomes newcomers to the world of Tolkien.
What members of the Catholic faith likely will find disappointing is the lack of representation in the film—moreover, the way Christianity is portrayed as a useless and restrictive force. Any follower of Tolkien knows of his devotion to his Catholic faith and his incorporation of his faith into his novels. From Gandalf’s resurrection (Gray to White) to the One Ring’s devilish temptation, Catholic subtext is abundant in his works. Instead, Tolkien, as a child and man in this film, is devoid of faith. The filmmakers use the priest and guardian of Tolkien, Father Francis Morgan, as a person of close-minded authority to represent Christianity. Father Morgan only does his duties from outright-stated obligation to ensure the young Tolkien stays in college, later apologizing when Tolkien proves him wrong about the non-Catholic, Edith. The only direct connection to Jesus comes in the form of a massive crucifix during the movie’s finale of war. Does the sudden (and only) presence of a cross in the entire film signify a caring overseer as Tolkien stumbles through gunfire and bombs and hellish spirits? If yes, it is only to briefly satisfy the religious interest of the audience, certainly not to reinforce Tolkien’s hope to survive.
Maybe if the filmmakers showcased how Tolkien’s faith applied purpose to his life and created the foundation for his fantasy stories, not only a brighter understanding of those works would be revealed, but a positive light for Christianity would be appreciated, as well. If anything, the blitzkrieg of references to his work serves its commercial purpose, leaving the audience with a desire to rewatch his movies and reread his books, but not go to Mass.