Last weekend I finally got the chance to see Tolkien, a film I’d been looking forward to with guarded optimism. The film tells the story of young JRR Tolkien, focusing primarily on his youth, education, and experiences during the First World War.
When the film begins, young Ronald (the first R in his famous initials) and his younger brother Hilary are living in an idyllic English countryside with their mother, a widow. Ronald and Hilary return from a woodland romp in which they pretend to be knights to find their mother in earnest conversation with Fr. Francis Morgan. Their life, already difficult owing to a move from Africa, where Ronald was born, to England and the death of the boys’ father, is about to become more difficult yet. They move from the countryside to industrial Birmingham, where the boys’ mother shortly dies. Fr. Francis, now their guardian, sends them to school, where the homeschooled boys are awkward but brilliant.
In this stretch of the story the film finds its two themes in two forms of love—friendship and courtship. First, Ronald is at first mildly antagonized by and then invited to join a group of precocious fellow schoolboys. Four in number, they leave the grounds to have tea in the back tearoom of a local store, where they disrupt the stuff middle-aged usual crowd with their enthusiastic discussions of mythology and art. Ronald gives their fellowship a joyfully clumsy nickname, the Tea Club, Barrovian Society or TCBS. Second, Ronald meets Edith Bratt, a fellow orphan and boarder at the home where he and Hilary share a room. He is immediately smitten. The film follows these two relationships—Ronald and the TCBS, Ronald and Edith—for the rest of its running time, through tragedy in the first case and into joy in the other.
A view of Middle Earth
The film’s strongest asset is its visual splendor. Well-used landscape shots of the English countryside or the Oxford skyline or the Western Front evoke the love and loathing Tolkien felt for these places and suggest their atmospheric influence on his work, especially the most extreme of Middle Earth’s locations—the Shire in the countryside of his boyhood, Mordor in the smokestacks of Birmingham and the cratered moonscape of the Somme. This is a good-looking movie, and fantasy elements incorporated into the nightmarish, hallucinatory battle scenes—ringwraiths and dragons and even Sauron himself—work better than they should on the strength of their eeriness.
The war scenes themselves are outstanding, depicting the twenty-four-hour hell of the Somme authentically, with muck and grime and standing water in a no-man’s-land full of tree stumps and shell holes. Tolkien captures a thimbleful of the horror of the Western Front and shows Ronald’s dark, helpless place in it.
The film also has some truly inspired moments. My favorite depicted the news of England’s declaration of war on Germany in 1914. As Ronald’s fellow Oxford students flood the quad and cheer the arrival of a great adventure, Ronald sits quietly on a bench reading one of the great passages of Old English literature to his mentor, Professor Wright. It’s the speech of Byrhtwold in The Battle of Maldon:
Thought must be the harder, heart be the keener,
mind must be the greater, while our strength lessens.
The acting is fine but not outstanding, for reasons I’ll talk about shortly. Nicholas Hoult is fine as Ronald. As I worried, he’s too pretty, too billboard handsome to convince me he’s Tolkien. He did well enough with the material given him but I never believed he was the character. The same goes for Lily Collins as Edith, who performs better than Hoult in an even more underwritten part. The standout in the cast is Sir Derek Jacobi as Wright, in a very small part that only pops into the latter third or so of the film. Jacobi imbues Wright with such intelligence, affability, and goodness that it immediately underscores how far short the other cast members fall.
Where it went wrong
I think the writing, from a screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, is to blame. Most of the parts are underwritten or simply clumsily written. The actors do their best but the script simply isn’t well-formed or deep enough to tell the story well, and is too cliche-bound to tell the more complicated—and more interesting—truth.
The TCBS is a case in point. The young actors portraying the four depicted members can never take their characters beyond schoolboy stereotypes—the quiet one, the boisterous one, the nerdy one, the sensitive one—because the script never digs deeply enough for us to become invested in their friendships. We know the boys like each other simply because they spend most of their time declaiming poetry to each other. The one exception is Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle), a younger member whom the filmmakers depict mooning forlornly over Ronald, breathily commiserating about forbidden love after Roland is forced to cease communication with Edith. It’s a bizarre inclusion that adds nothing to the poignancy of Smith’s later death on the battlefield. It’s an example of the way modern film can’t seem to handle male friendship without sexualizing it. That it is so badly performed only draws attention to it.
But the weakest part of the film by far is the love story, which is a shame because, as I wrote in the spring, what I find most compelling and romantic about Ronald and Edith’s story is how much it breaks the mold of forbidden romance cliches. The real Ronald and Edith were forbidden to communicate by Fr. Francis—because Ronald’s grades had started slipping and because Edith was not a Catholic, about which more below—and Ronald and Edith obeyed. Edith got engaged to someone else. Ronald pined away until the evening of his twenty-first birthday, when he sat and wrote a letter to her proposing marriage.
The film hews to the facts in the broadest possible outline but everywhere you can feel the screenwriter massaging the details to fit the standard Hollywood mold. Ronald and Edith’s romance is communicated primarily through cuteness and smiles and twee sequences of whimsy, as when they cannot get seats for Wagner’s Ring and dance around in the prop department instead. Tolkien fell in love with a sharp, talented, and seriously religious and principled woman, but all the movie can give us are luminous smiles. Ronald responds to his forced breakup with Edith by getting drunk and staggering around the quad and lashing out at an old friend, then he steals a bus—something that actually happened, but not the way it’s depicted here. When at last he is old enough to pursue Edith, the couple is depicted as reuniting just before Ronald and the other members of the TCBS ship out to the Western Front. In reality, Ronald and Edith were already married by then. And Fr. Francis, an enormous influence in Tolkien’s early life and a man about whom Tolkien had nothing negative to say, is reduced by the screenplay to the role of an obstacle. In his extremely limited screentime he comes across as an out of touch fuddy-duddy, and Ronald lights into him for daring to dictate rules about his love life when he is celibate, a 21st-century zinger if ever there was one.
Finally, the film only makes token gestures toward the religious dimension of Tolkien’s life. One would be forgiven for not knowing that Fr. Francis was a Catholic priest, a serious omission given the level of anti-Catholicism in England at the time. That Tolkien’s mother lived in such miserable conditions because her own family had cut her off after converting to Catholicism is left out, as is the serious religiosity of the TCBS, which Tolkien regarded as the force that bound its (much more than four) members. And the difficulty of Edith’s conversion from her serious and devout Anglicanism to Catholicism also gets not a mention. I expected it, but it’s still disappointing.
I’ve had a lot to say about Tolkien’s flaws but I enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I just can’t recommend it, first for all of the reasons I’ve outlined above, and second because I simply don’t know what someone who didn’t already know a lot about Tolkien would get out of the movie. That moment between Ronald and Professor Wright reading The Battle of Maldon as England goes its most destructive war blew me away because I’ve read The Battle of Maldon dozens of times. Would the average viewer feel the power of that scene as I did without knowing that thousand-year old poem? I doubt it.
By the same token, someone who doesn’t know Tolkien’s life story will get only a standard Hollywood melodrama about friendships that end in the tragedy of war and a love that overcomes obstacles thrown in its way. The details and specifics of these remarkale real people have been sanded away in favor of cliches. The result is a nice-looking film with underwritten parts that proceeds as if on autopilot.
Middle Earth still awaits its Tolkien movie.