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Friday, May 10, 2019

Tolkien

Given the real life author's gifted imagination and his love of language, the biofilm Tolkien is a rather cut and dry approach to bringing the life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien to the screen.  Perhaps it was to be expected, and it seems the current approach when adapting anyone's life to cinema is to take the form of a visual Wikipedia article, taking bits and pieces, while not truly exploring the subject matter.  This is a well made and acted film that simply lacks depth.

I have become increasingly bothered by the fact that all movies tackling the life of a person seem to be going for an "information dump" approach.  The screenwriters to these movies almost seem to view these projects as homework, looking up and researching the subject on line, and then creating the most basic narrative imaginable, which usually amounts to cherry picking key moments in the subject's life, without any connecting tissue.  A lot of recent movies about famous people (the most recent example being Bohemian Rhapsody, which turned the life of Freddie Mercury into a forgettable bore, outside of the brilliantly staged concert scenes) just don't seem all that interested in the subject matter, and just pass out the facts of the person's life with little passion.  I guess that's why I'm personally anticipating the upcoming Elton John biofilm, Rocketman, which seems to be taking a musical fantasy approach mixed in with his life story.  I'm hoping that will provide some needed life to the currently dry landscape of true life cinematic takes.  I guess we will see when the movie hits theaters in a few weeks.

But on to Tolkien, which has the look and acting talent of a prestige picture, but the script never quite lives up, despite some good moments.  Right off the bat, the movie makes a mistake in its tone, by opening the story in the middle of a war in 1916, with Tolkien himself (played here by Nicholas Hoult) as a soldier desperately trying to reunite with an old friend (another soldier) whom he has not heard back from, and is worried about him.  As he makes his way across the battlefield with the aid of another soldier, he begins to hallucinate visions of dragons, and other images that he would popularize in his fantasy stories right there on the battlefield, and frequently flashes back to his younger years as he is surrounded by bloodshed and chaos.  The framing device of the battle does not work, as it drags on endlessly, and removes some of the power of the author's imagination, by linking it to a famous war.  The flashbacks that make up the central part of the film are strong enough to stand on their own, without having to constantly cut to battle.  I kind of wish the screenplay had just focused on the man himself, and what led up to the events to him writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, without the framing device.

We first meet the future author as a young boy being raised by his mother (Laura Donnelly), who instills in him a love for myths and storytelling.  She dies rather suddenly (at least in this film), and his younger brother and him are taken in by Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney), who places them both in a boarding house.  We get some scenes of Tolkien not being able to fit in at school, until he befriends a small group of boys who become his best friends.  They include Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant), Robert Gilson (Albie Marber) and Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman).  The young men create a "fellowship", where they can talk about their passions for art and literature.  They call themselves the Tea Club, Barrovian Society, or T.C.B.S., which one of the boys rightfully states sounds like a disease.  The four young actors do have good chemistry together with their scenes, although I do wish the movie had spent more time on their strengthening bond, which obviously makes up a big part of the film's heart.

The other element of the heart is when Tolkien meets Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a fellow orphan whom he is immediately smitten with, and becomes the love of his life during the course of the film.  They have a great early scene together, where they discuss language, and the sound of certain words.  This led me to think that the movie would truly begin diving into this couple, and what brought them together.  But again, the movie disappoints.  It doesn't exactly go wrong, mind you.  Rather, Edith does not play as big a part in the film as you would initially expect, and aside from the scene I mentioned earlier, we don't get many instances where they just get to sit and talk about their interests.  Rather, the movie takes a much more predictable route, where he makes a mistake, they go their separate ways, but he still loves her, and even after she is engaged to somebody else, she still loves him, it turns out.  Edith was clearly a large part of Tolkien's life, but the movie never quite sells that importance to the audience like it should.

There are other good moments here, like the relationship that he sparks with a philology professor played by Derek Jacobi, where Tolkien and him have a few wonderful scenes where they discuss language.  Again, these are the moments where Tolkien truly seems to come to life as a film, where the characters actually discuss their passions.  Unfortunately, most of the film wants to take a much more traditional approach, where it checks off moments in the subject matter's life, rather than truly exploring his ideals.  This is not really that bad of a movie, just one that slightly disappoints in how it approaches the subject matter.  The brief glimpses we get into Tolkien's love for writing, creating worlds and creating language are so wonderful, you want to see more of it.  You want the movie to savor these scenes.  But just when it seems to be getting good, it distracts itself by cutting back to the war story that just didn't spark any interest in me. 

The movie ends with Tolkien beginning to write the first few words of The Hobbit, so we never get to see his success, or just how deeply he got into his own world.  That alone could have made for an interesting movie.  Regardless, as standard biofilms go, this does well enough, but there are hints throughout at the even better movie that it could have been.  Tolkien was a man deeply invested in his own work and the world he created, and the movie doesn't express that as strongly as it should.

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