Tolkien (2019) 

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

“Tolkien.” The name conjures many things to mind. Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves, and “one ring to rule them all.” Before Tolkien was the greatest fantasy writer of all time, he found a fellowship of his own.
J.R.R. Tolkien, or “Ronald” (Nicholas Holt) to his friends, struggles through the trenches in WWI, in search of his best friend, Geoffrey Smith. As he faces the terrible death toll of the Somme, he flashes back to his childhood.
Uprooted from all he knows and moved into the city after his father’s death, “Ronald” Tolkien (Harry Gilby) takes comfort in daydreaming and sketching fantastical creatures from his imagination. His mother’s stirring stories of dragons and fair knights fuel his inspiration to create entire languages. Then, he comes home one day to find his mother has also died.

His priest, Father Francis (Colm Meaney) moves him into a boardinghouse where a charming young pianist, Edith (Mimi Keene) lives, and finds him a good school to attend. Tolkien shows a natural aptitude for learning, and through run-in on the rugby field with the headmaster’s son, soon finds himself in a small group of friends. Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle) dreams of becoming a poet. Robert Gilson (Albie Marber) works hard to maintain high grades, but wants to paint. Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant) is an aspiring musician and composer. The four boys soon form a friendship and agree to “change the world through their art.”
This friendship lasts over the years. Now aspiring to college, Tolkien dreams of attending Oxford. His romance with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) sustains him, but a difficult struggle lies ahead… tuition he cannot pay, a devastating world war, and stories that just won’t leave him alone...

Tolkien is a respectful, romantic, and deep tribute to a man who loved words so much, he created entire languages for his fictional races to speak. As a character, he comes across as an emotional, in love man who also had an incredible gift for languages. The script has a genuine love for his world, and teems with references to his work—a faithful man in the trenches called Sam, eagles in flight on the walls of his bedroom, shadows of Ents late in his room at night, a remark that “a story about a magic ring should not take six hours to tell,” Nazgul and dragons on the battlefield, even a glimpse of Sauron. Tolkien makes notes from ancient books that speak of “Fili, Kili, and Gandalf.”

It’s not a movie for the faint of heart, because it touches on things like loss (both he and Edith are orphans, and not all his friends survive the war), the devastating horrors of the battlefield, and PTSD (he says not all men came back from the war “unchanged”). It has many sad scenes, but also joyful ones—flashes of genuine humor and sweetness, especially in his tender relationship with his future wife.

The film flashes back and forth between the battlefield and earlier scenes in his life, but it never becomes too erratic or distracting, and allows the audience “breaks” from the horrors of war. It does not touch on his faith (his priest objects to his love of Edith because “She’s not even Catholic!” but later admits Tolkien chose well, because “she never left your side, not once”), but it carries all the themes of his books—primarily, that of “friendship.” He and his friends champion one another, push each other to courage, bolster each other in failure, and help each other.

The movie is beautifully cast and written, has a gorgeous original score (that suggests The Lord of the Rings), and lovely costumes. I walked out for the first time understanding the great author who “dabbled” in Middle-earth his entire life. It made me like him as a human being, in giving me tremendous empathy for his losses, and it reminded me of the preciousness of life. Tolkien saw and felt the devastation of war and translated his feelings into a beautiful book series that has inspired generations of fans.

Originally written for Christian Spotlight.

Sexual Content:
One character refers to buxom women; he shows his friends two paintings he made of bare-breasted women (he says he wishes he could find live models). The father chastises Tolkien for coming out of Edith’s room late one night, but Tolkien insists (truthfully) they were “just talking.” Some could interpret Geoffrey’s tenderness and affection toward Tolkien as unrequited love, but I didn’t see it that way. Tolkien says of all his friends, “Geoffrey most embodied what it is to love.”
 
Language:
There’s no profane language, although the boys use “Hell” a few times, as a rallying cry, centered on Tolkien’s studies of the underworld.
 
Violence:
Tolkien endures fire in the trenches (we see one man in flames running and screaming), soldiers being gassed by the enemy, stumbling through a sea of bodies, at one point falling to his knees in a pool of blood surrounded by a mound of corpses. Lots of men are shot, blown up / blown through the air, etc.

Other:
None.