DIRECTOR: DOME KARUKOSKI | SCREENPLAY: DAVID GLEESON, STEPHEN BERESFORD | STARRING: NICHOLAS HOULT, LILY COLLINS, COLM MEANEY, DEREK JACOBI | RELEASE DATE: MAY 3RD
It would be exceptionally glib of us to describe director Dome Karukoski’s biopic of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s early years as Bilbo Begins, but let’s be honest, without The Hobbit, the movie Tolkien would never have been made. Let’s be clear from the start. This is a biopic that begins with a young Tolkien and his brother playing as knights in the woods with toy swords. Within the first five minutes we get a dragon-sized load of visual callbacks to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, though not in a particularly disruptive way. Instead, this is a dramatisation of a young man looking to make his way in the world through difficult circumstances.
Though privileged, Tolkien’s early life wasn’t easy, and the bulk of the drama takes place during his school years. We meet the famous author’s childhood friends and the narrative makes much ado about choosing the more difficult routes in life. The creative path and living one’s life with freedom is lauded and actor Nicholas Hoult turns in a great performance as the intensely intelligent and determined to be free Tolkien. Anthony Boyle is particularly compelling as GB Smith and there are some particularly heart-rending scenes between the two.
Other standout performances include Derek Jacobi as a very peculiar professor and Colm Meany as a Catholic Priest, a role that Meany has seemingly performed so many times that it just seems natural and right. Tolkien’s story could not be told with mentioning the singular love of his life, Edith Bratt. Lily Collins is mesmerising in the role, both sweet and fiercely intelligent throughout. Fans of Middle-earth will be disappointed to learn that Tolkien’s fantasy version of his courtship of Edith, Beren and Luthien, is only mentioned in the end credits, but then that is a tale that deserves its own feature.
There is good chemistry between Hoult and Collins and the story winds and twists around the pair, forming the bulk of the narrative. The other backbone of the tale is the constant flashbacks to Tolkien’s experiences in World War I, and throughout the all too real horror of that conflict, we see flashes of the monsters that the good Professor would later write about.
Much in the same way that Tolkien’s skill at mythic storytelling shaped much of his life, this movie leans into fantastic elements as metaphor for a very real story. It is a compelling tale told well, but it is not meant to be anything like the blockbuster movies that came before it. It’s a gentle tale with terror and love as its central theme. Epic storytelling at its best.