This film is the first of a three-week intermission, between the box-sets I’ve been exploring for so long this year and the dozen or nore single-film DVDs that will form a relatively short Film 2020 season. It’s also by far the most recent film I’ve ever watched on a Sunday morning, straight from sleep, being a 2019 film released in the cinemas only seven months before this writing. I meant to see it then, but Sundays are both the best and the most awkward to visit a cinema, and I never got round to it.
By general consensus, Tolkien, a biopic of the author of The Lord of the Rings, was a failure: certainly commercially and to many artistically. Some thought it superb. My own opinion is somewhere between. Large parts of the film were low-key, as any film dealing with the life of a writer is bound to be (scribbling things in a notebook at a bus stop or on a bus is about as exciting as my writing gets), but on the other hand there were scenes near the film’s end that, to me, were deeply emotional.
The film had no assistance from the Tolkien family, as was evidenced by the fact that it only used a few of Tolkien’s words: Earendel was spoken, as was The Hobbit, but I noted that in the captions that closed things off, the film either didn’t want to, or more likely was prevented from specifying that the shared grave of Tolkien and his wife Edith carry the names Beren and Luthien, stating only that words were taken from Tolkien’s private mythology.
So with the caveat that the film was faithful to the course of Tolkien’s life, the details must be taken on trust, what was it like?
In order to create a physically dramatic opening, the film is framed around the Battle of the Somme in 1916, in Flanders. Lt. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is suffering from trench fever but refuses to rest, instead insisting on searching the trenches for his friend Lt. Geoffrey Bache Smith. Followed by his batman, Private Hodges (first name Sam, cue gasp of significance) who refuses to leave him, Tolkien’s mind keeps slipping into the past, presenting his life in lengthy flashbacks.
I’m not going to start reciting the details of Tolkien’s life. The flashbacks start from the financially enforced removal of the Tolkien family – mother, Ronald, younger brother Hilary – from the idyllic countryside of Sarehole Mill in Warwickshire to the smoky, black, hideously cramped hellhole of Birmingham (where nobody speaks in a Brummie accent), and continue as far as Tolkien’s enlistment in 1914 before the film’s timeline merges.
Along the way, the story makes a creditable job of depicting Tolkien’s twin fascinations with mythology and language, but it’s at its strongest in the two external passions of his life in this era. One of these is the TCBS, a small society of Tolkien and his three closest friends, the aforementioned Geoffrey, Robert Gilson and Christopher Wiseman. Through awkward beginnings, the quartet become close friends, brothers, an alliance determined on changing the world, through. Smith is a poet, Gilson a painter, Wiseman a composer. Tolkien’s future is by no means so clear. But these four, in their different characters, embody a meeting pf purpose, all so clever, so vital.
The TCBS isn’t just a fact of Tolkien’s life, they are an emblem. The Edwardian period, from the turning of the century to the advent of the Great War, is often spoken as a kind of Golden afternoon, a society going places that was crushed underfoot by War. For the vast majority it was nothing of the sort but they don’t feature in this story. Tolkien, Smith, Gilson and Wiseman are a representative of that world and its potential: you know already that it’s going to be smashed, that the dreams and determinations of these privileged, unrealistic but talented young men are going to be buried in the mud of Flanders Fields, but when it comes it’s no less painful to watch Tolkien’s loss than it is for him. Smith and Gilson died on the Somme, Wiseman was broken by the conflict and lost as both a friend and a composer. The irony, which is never once hinted at let alone spelt out, is that it was Tollers, the least-formed of these overgrown boys, who was the only one to fulfil their promise.
The other relationship is, of course, with Miss Edith Bratt. Ronald meets Edith when he and his brother are taken in as foster-children by the wealthy Mrs Faulkner, whose only other foster is Edith, also an orphan, destined for a life of poverty and genteel slavery as Mrs Faulkner’s companion.
Edith is also talented, an excellent piannist but, most importantly, a woman with a mind, independent and passionate. For her, the life ahead is in all senses a prison. She is denied even the freedom to play classical piano, having instead to play ‘cheerful’ sentimental slop.
There are difficulties, both due to inexperience but, most savagely, the decision of Tolkien’s legal guardian to forbid him seeing Edith until he comes of age at 21. Father Francis is concerned about her effect on Tolkien’s studies at Oxford, where he is failing on a number of levels until he finds himself sparked by Professor Wright and transfers to philology.
Tolkien wants their separation to be temporary but Edith sees her hope of escape, her desire for an ordinary life, with hope and happiness, being taken away for good. The TCBS tell Tolkien, with good reason, that it was he who made the choice, not Father Francis, it was not forced on him.
But though Edith becomes engaged to another, Tolkien’s love remains in full force, and on the eve of his embarkation for France, she agrees to meet him and things are righted between them. Stay alive, she tells him, and come back to me (a line from Treebeard’s lament for the Entwives, though I didn’t recognise that until I started writing about the film).
Tolkien survives. Edith has found him in hospital and has never left his bedside until he wakes: Father Francis approves of her. The film, having no more flashbacks to deliver, leaps years, to Oxford, Professorship, marriage, children. Tolkien is still, in one sense, living in the war, though this time his loss is loss of purpose. Edith challenges him to find joy in writing, or else give up completely. This becomes the catalyst for the beginning of a story to be told to the children. We see him write ‘In a hole in the ground lived’ but we only hear him say The Hobbit before we are led out of the story by the captions mentioned above.
All told, Tolkien is a fairly low-key film, respecting the conventions of Tolkien’s generation and its restraint in the portrayal of overt emotion. The film makes a very sensible decision in choosing little-known actors to play its characters, so that we are not distracted by the parts past played by practiced stars. Nicholas Hoult does a decent job of portraying Tolkien, who keeps his feelings in more than we would recognise as good for anyone in our day and age, whilst Lily Collins is a quiet revelation as Edith, across the wider spectrum her femininity allows her to express: in most of their scenes together, it is she not he who is the star.
Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson and Tom Glynne-Carney, as Smith, Gilson and Wiseman, all bring different but complementing personalities to the doomed group of friends, and I have to compliment Casting Director Kate Ringsell for finding actors to play the central cast’s not-all-that younger selves so seamlessly in both looks and performance.
The only two ‘name’ performers are veterans Colm Meaney as Father Francis and Derek Jacobi as Professor Wright, though Lauren Donnelly, who briefly portrays Tolkien’s mother, will count as a name to the followers of the Outlander TV series.
Overall though, how good is this film? It’s about Toliken’s earlier life, formative years, things that influenced him in the kind of writing he produced. I was unfair above in that snarky aside about ‘Sam’ Hodges, because the film deserves credit for not making these things a point for the audience to go ‘Ah-hah!’ except in the privacy of their own minds. Such matters are few. Indeed, apart from the overt displays of Mrs Tolkien acting out Norse myth for her sons, or Tolkien’s own obsessions with the Library, literary foreshadowing is kept to a minimum, shadows and temporary visions, none of which are either effective, or other than risible, though thankfully brief. Only when Tolkien is witness to the slaughter in No Man’s Land is such a vision alowable, and it’s another mark of the film’s inhibition about using Tolkien’s actual works that his very first entry to the Mythology, ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, was begun in the twenties, in 1916, and we are denied even the inference of this.
Ultimately, I come down on the side of the film, not that I have any plans to add it to my library. Who knows though? Lily Collins is certainly worth a 50p Charoty shop DVD, and maybe I’d even go up to a quid…