When I first learned that there was going to be a biopic about J.R.R. Tolkien, I was excited but also extremely apprehensive. Tolkien was a man who might not be easily grasped by today’s culture: a devout Catholic, a loving and faithful husband and father, a survivor of the Somme in World War I, and someone who loved language so much that he invented several of his own, just for fun. Tolkien is criticized for a lack of female characters in his books, but he moved in a world where he himself had friendships only with other men and this was not considered unusual. However, he adored his wife and idolized his mother, and had a very positive view of women in general; which is evident if you pay attention to the female characters that he did write. In the collections of his letters, it’s clear that Tolkien’s faith was a very active and integral part of his life, influencing everything from his relationships with his family and friends to his creation of Middle Earth and its fictional histories.
It’s hard to imagine a secular movie production being able to capture the fervor of Tolkien’s faith that is evident from his many letters that we have left to us, and so I really wasn’t surprised that this was the main area that the movie ended up being rather lackluster for me. But to be fair, it’s my only real criticism.
The movie covers only the early years of his school days and his time in the war. It doesn’t go into his many years as a professor or his friendship with C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, but that is forgivable. The movie writers kept their story-line short and focused, and I think that is reasonable, even if Lewis fans wish he had been given an appearance. The movie instead focuses on Tolkien’s first group of close school friends, which was somewhat of a prelude to the Inklings, as well as Tolkien’s relationship and courtship with his future wife, Edith. It has the most positive portrayal of male friendships I’ve seen outside of The Lord of the Rings itself, and shows young men as being simultaneously capable of honor, athleticism, artistic sensitivity, loyalty, and courage. We are given glimpses of Tolkien’s immense imagination, his love for nature and the country, and the value he placed on friendship and brotherhood, and we are shown how all of this influenced his creation of Middle Earth and the writing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It’s a story about the importance of stories, which I think Tolkien himself would have appreciated.
One of the most refreshing things about the movie was the complete lack of titillation, as opposed to nearly everything else you see on the screen these days. The love story between Tolkien and Edith is sweet and compelling, but their physical affection is kept to a few beautiful stolen kisses. Even the portrayal of the Battle of the Somme is not made overly graphic or gory, though it is still kept appropriately dark and violent. But instead of going for cheap visual thrills, the movie just tells its story and lets that be enough. I wish more movies these days would follow that trend.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie more than I had actually hoped for. It was sweet and well-made, and I think Nicholas Hoult was the perfect casting choice. If you like a good period biopic, I recommend checking it out.
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