There’s an inspired moment about halfway through Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien where a young J. R. R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) takes his future wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) to tea in a lavish restaurant, one shellacked with the suffocating pomp of late Edwardian splendor. Tolkien, an impoverished orphan, tries to make polite conversation with the woman he’s fallen helplessly in love with. But to no avail; she’s disinterested in polite pleasantries, instead lobbing sugar cubes into the hats of nearby ladies and prodding him about his greatest, most embarrassing eccentricity—his love of creating fictional languages. After sussing out what he considers the most beautiful English word—cellar door—she goads her nervous suitor into creating a story for this mystic sounding word. For what good, Edith reasons, is a word without a meaning? As she pokes and teases Tolkien, he slowly draws into himself, his eyes closing, his hands clasping in deep concentration. And there, in a moment, he weaves a story about a magical place called Celador, a shrine in the middle of an ancient wood where two trees, one black, one white, twist around each other, their saps co-mingling to create a potion which drives all who drink it mad. His eyes snap open and the story is done, but the spell cast upon Edith by their imaginary word remains. They have created a place, a kingdom, out of thin air.
Tolkien the film is likewise interested in the origins of stories, specifically that of Tolkien’s masterpiece, the Lord of the Rings series. To said end, it dissects the man’s youth for all the bits and pieces that led to the writing of his fantasy opus, starting with his idyllic childhood in the pastoral English countryside, one cut short by his father’s unexpected death and his family’s displacement into heavily industrialized Birmingham in search of work. One need not be an expert on symbolism to see the parallels between his countryside childhood and the idyllic, agrarian utopia of the Shire or the fiery, soot-caked Birmingham of his youth and the barren, industrial hellscapes of Isengard and Mordor. Nor does one need be an expert on symbolism when Tolkien falls in with three precocious, fuzzy-headed friends at Oxford who take a vow of fellowship together as a semi-secret drinking club. Nor when he’s followed by a loyal orderly named Sam (Craig Roberts) while trudging through the bloody sludge and mud of the trenches at the Battle of the Somme. But just in case, the film reasons, why not make the connection between creator and creation explicit by having Tolkien have visions of dragons, knights, and wizened, shadowy horrors lurking across No Man’s Land?
Tolkien is not a subtle film, nor is it a brisk one, sleepily wandering through every nook and cranny of his early life, plundering everything he saw, thought, or experienced as a young man as some inspiration for Lord of the Rings. It’s only in the precious few scenes where Karukoski abandons his burdensome search for meaning and examines Tolkien as a writer enamored with words, with stories, with the woman he loves, that it springs to life, perfectly encapsulated in a later scene where his future philology professor poetically describes the whole history and culture of the ancient Anglo-Saxons by exploring the etymology of the word “oak.” It’s here that the film snaps to life, even more than during the scenes which realistically depict the carnage and brutality of Tolkien’s combat experiences.
Yet the film can’t escape the weight of its own tedium, weighed down by its romantic and Bildungsroman preoccupations, more Merchant Ivory melodrama than exploration of the healing powers of art and language in the wake of war and loss. Additionally, for a film so obsessed with the specific details of Tolkien’s life that bled onto the pages of his books, Karukoski ignores arguably the primary one: his devout Catholicism. Though he denied using direct one-to-one religious allegories in his work, the impact of Tolkien’s faith on a story about renewal, redemption, dark versus light, and an unlikely savior are impossible to ignore. Yet ignore them Tolkien does, treating his faith as so much negligible background radiation in his life. His churchgoing is presented as compulsory and brainless, his interactions with clergy combative and hostile. To ignore Tolkien’s Christianity would be like ignoring that of his good friend and fellow writer C. S. Lewis—you simply can’t make a responsible, complete portrait of the man or their work without it. And yet still, here we have Tolkien.