Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi
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…for those who appreciate his work, the creative process, or even just the nature of language, it gets the job done.
“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and weary enough to detect its presence.”
With these words from the legendary storyteller J.R.R. Tolkien, the existence of this particular biopic feels… off. It fits in with the standard modern depiction of creative minds, winding imagination and history together to depict an artist on the brink of something that they have to create, if only to settle their own demons. Biography that treats art as allegory for the artist. Knowing that the Tolkien estate has disavowed this film, this feels like it’s already on an uphill trudge to justify itself as an art work. Even without having seen the film for themselves, the estate might have a point in not approving this.
But while the approval of the man himself will never be known, it helps that this film does a certain degree of justice to his legacy and his work. Embodied with idealistic fervour by Nicholas Hoult, his performance combined with the scripting convey a lot of what makes Tolkien such a beloved writer: His willingness to bond rather than break off from others, his intuition when it came to the power of art, and of course, his masterful understanding of language that would form a crucial foundation in his literary universe.
This is somewhat to the film’s detriment, since the story spends an almost overindulgent amount of time discussing linguistics and the written word, overshadowing a lot of the other aspects, including Tolkien’s connection to his faith. Of course, it’s difficult to get too annoyed about that, since the scenes that dive head-long into the mechanics of language make for quite enthralling dialogue. Crafting artificial languages is one of the trickier aspects of narrative worldbuilding, something that Tolkien remains one of the few true masters of, so highlighting one of the key elements that made him truly extraordinary feels apt.
As for the visuals, director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) and frequent collaborator Lasse Frank as cinematographer leave traces of the works we all know throughout the film, almost as if they’re dreams being filtered through the camera lens.
This results in a fair bit of direct visual reference to Peter Jackson’s adaptations (as well as retroactive ribbing of the length of said adaptations), but for the most part, it manages to maintain its own aesthetic identity without leaning too hard on the audience’s nostalgia. From the dusky haze of fire on the front line in France to the regal opulence of a tea room, it does just enough to not be completely overshadowed by the deliciously quippy dialogue.
The depiction we get of Tolkien is that of a warrior poet, one who had to work his way through everyone else’s preconceptions about him and the potential of his art. It may serve as the latest biopic in a trend, but for those who appreciate his work, the creative process, or even just the nature of language, it gets the job done.