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"TOLKIEN"
(2019) (Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A young man's time spent with his three best friends, the love of his life, and in trench warfare during WWI end up helping inspire his later world-famous works of fiction.
PLOT:
It's the middle of WWI and J.R.R. "Ronald" Tolkien (NICHOLAS HOULT) is a young college student who's now found himself in the middle of deadly trench warfare. Despite being ill, and with the aid of Private Sam Hodges (CRAIG ROBERTS), Ronald is trying to find one of his best friends, Geoffrey (ANTHONY BOYLE), who's reportedly somewhere nearby on the front lines. As the horrors of that play out and Ronald hallucinates at times from his illness, mustard gas and the rest of the warfare, the story rewinds to his earlier days.

That includes Ronald (HARRY GILBY) at a young age ending up orphaned alongside his younger brother upon the death of their single mother and then being placed by his legal guardian, Father Francis (COLM MEANEY), into a boarding home alongside fellow orphan Edith Bratt (MIMI KEENE). Enrolled at the prestigious King Edward's School, Ronald initially finds an adversary in the headmaster's son, Robert Gilson (ALBIE MARBER), but the two quickly form a strong bond along with fellow classmates Christopher Wiseman (TY TENNANT) and Geoffrey Smith (ADAM BREGMAN).

Years later, Ronald (NICHOLAS HOULT), Geoffrey (ANTHONY BOYLE), Robert (PATRICK GIBSON), and Christopher (TOM GLYNN-CARNEY) are still fast friends who've formed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society where they discuss art and other matters of the day. At the same time, Ronald has begun courting Edith (LILY COLLINS), but as the group splits up to go off to different colleges and WWI looms on the horizon, their friendships and relationships are put to the test, all of which eventually helps inspire Ronald to later write his world-famous works of fiction.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
A common bit of advice for authors, playwrights, screenwriters and such is "write what you know." In short, that means take your life experiences and either directly write about them or use them as fuel for the creative fire of creating works of fictions, often metaphorical in nature.

One need only look at writers who served or volunteered their time during various wars and you can see that they took heed of that advice. From Ernest Hemingway to C. S. Lewis, A.A. Milne, George Orwell, Isaac Asimov, J. G. Ballard, Roald Dahl, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Rod Serling and many, many more, all had their military time affect their writing to one degree or another.

The same holds true for John Ronald Reuel Tolkien who, like Lewis, fought in trench warfare during WWI, somehow managed to survive that and then went on to write some novels you might have heard of including "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings." His own tale, or at least part of it, is now told in the simple titled biopic "Tolkien."

Now, I typically don't read other reviews of films before writing my own, but was surprised at the mediocre to poor reception this film was getting from a number of critics and since I liked (but didn't love) the movie, I figured I'd check out their arguments. And you know what they are?

That this look at the man's early years -- of being orphaned, sent away to a boarding house and school, forming a strong camaraderie with like-minded fellow students, finding the love of his life and, yes, ending up in the muddy trenches of the "war to end all wars" -- isn't as magical as the fantastical elements of his famous works and that the battle scenes don't match up with those in the "Rings" films.

Really? That would be like complaining that a future biopic film about Steven Spielberg's life was disappointing because it didn't have him surviving a shark attack in real life, fighting off Nazis for an important archaeological find or having his own close encounter with a friendly extraterrestrial. C'mon people, you're putting too much of a burden, filled with your unrealistic expectations, on this flick.

The film -- directed by Dome Karukoski from a screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford -- begins with Tolkien (a fine Nicholas Hoult) in the mire with an imagined view of two warriors on horseback headed toward each other with swords raised. The story then rewinds to when he's a boy enthralled by stories told to him and his brother by their mother who, alas, passes away.

That results in their guardian, Father Francis (Colm Meaney), sending them off to boarding homes and schools, and that's where Ronald meets three classmates who will becomes his fast friends in scenes that definitely have a certain "Dead Poets Society" vibe to them. Indeed, Ronald along with Geoffrey (Anthony Boyle), Robert (Patrick Gibson), and Christopher (Tom Glynn-Carney) form the Tea Club and Barrovian Society where they discuss art and other matters of the day, including Ronald's attraction to fellow orphan Edith (Lily Collins).

As that plays out over months and years -- including when they head off to college -- the story repeatedly returns to the trenches where a very ill Ronald is desperately searching for one of those friends who's likewise stuck in the middle of wartime hell.

While the man's later works of fiction are not directly referenced -- partly because the real man's family and estate didn't give their blessing to the film and simply because they were likely only starting to brew inside his imagination at the time -- Karukoski drops hints here and there along the way pointing in that direction, such as the fellowship of those friends, Ronald and Edith trying to sneak into a performance of Wagner's Ring Cycle and some hallucinatory views of fire-breathing dragons in the battlefield.

Like most any biopic that must pick and choose what it's going to show within the constraints of its running time, the film often can't shake the feeling of being superficial to one degree or another. But there are more than enough emotional connections to compensate and thus I was engaged from start to finish.

Not being a diehard "Hobbit" or "Rings" fan, I came out appreciating the real-life author even more and may revisit those works to look for signs of those early influential moments. "Tolkien" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed April 5, 2019 / Posted May 10, 2019


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