"You invented a whole language?" He sure did. And some others for good measure. J.R.R. Tolkien was the god behind Middle-earth, the realm of the fantasy bibles, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and others. Those novels made blockbuster movies and, while you might not guess it, the life of the author makes for a pretty good movie as well. Tolkien examines the early life of the title writer as his tumultuous experiences shape what eventually winds up as legend in his genius mythology.
Movies about people who create languages, or devise revolutionary economics theories, or speculate about the creation of the universe are all kind of the same. Genius biopics are usually origin stories about misunderstood loners or outcasts who each change the world with their incredible minds. Tolkien fits right into that category. Luckily, I love genius movies, despite their formulaic boredom.
I also love Gandalf and hobbits and mithril so Tolkien can really do no wrong. The film, directed by Dome Karukoski, smartly hones in on the connections between the author's life and the stories and characters we know. It's a conventional biopic in every way, but the subject is alternatively fascinating or yawn-inducing depending on your allegiance to the material. If you aren't thrilled by the inspiration behind Sauron, you may fall asleep.
J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) had a hellish childhood. The film throws us into the drama as he loses both parents at a young age before he's sent off to fight for England in World War I. Losing his girl and best friends along the way, Tolkien experiences the horrors of trench warfare before returning home to the love of his life, Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), and becoming a legendary writer of modern myths.
Tolkien's Dickensian formative years see him orphaned along with his little brother and placed in the care of Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney). He soon shows a unique mind and develops into a star pupil at King Edward's School in Birmingham. It's there Tolkien meets the three boys (Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, and Tom Glynn-Carney) who form Tolkien's personal "fellowship." They vow to "change the world" through "the power of art."
The theme of fellowship runs through Tolkien, as one might expect, but it's the love story that truly defines him. His romance with Edith, a fellow orphan, begins in their youth and is unceremoniously upended by Father Francis when Tolkien's grades slip. He'll be expelled unless he stops seeing her so he has no choice but to agree. Edith would, in due time, become the inspiration for Tolkien's all-time heroines, like Arwen Evenstar, who gives up Elvish immortality to marry Aragorn, a mortal, in The Lord of the Rings.
Through these relationships and, later, the horrors of war, Tolkien draws the connections between the author's life and what we know from his works. It helps to have a talented cast. Led by Hoult, there's never a question as to the characters' shared intellectual veracity. A big hurdle in genius films is casting a lead who can pull off the feat. Hoult, who's been playing smart since he was a child actor, gives a low-risk, effective performance that's believable. The formula may be worn out, but Tolkien is made to pay homage to the man behind Middle-earth and his fans, and it does just that.