Released: 13th June (Advance Screening)
To say that the 1937 book The Hobbit was a game changer would be an understatement. When it comes to the fantasy genre, one could say that The Hobbit and its follow up novels are the reason the fantasy genre still continues to have a life. It’s a work that inspired countless authors and, of course, eventually, lead to three of the most beloved movies of the last 20 years with the iconic Lord of the Rings trilogy. They also made movies based on The Hobbit but we don’t talk about those. Those films were huge though, truly massive moments that are landmarks of cinema and when they ran out of Hobbit movies, someone had to find something to fill the void and since the rights for the stories are with Amazon for that upcoming prequel series, the only way to fill the void would be to do a story about the author himself. You can almost hear the executive squealing with delight when they came up with that idea, even more joyful when they realised that Tolkien was in the First World War so they could do a huge battle scene. Basically, this was a way to get another Lord of the Rings movie out on a smaller budget and it would’ve worked so wonderfully… if, ya know, it was engaging.
Tolkien takes place from just before J. R. R. Tolkien’s (Nicholas Hoult) mother dies to just as he starts writing the first words of The Hobbit. A small period of time, we cut back and forth from the trenches of World War 1 to Tolkien going through high school, making a bunch of friends, falling in love with a woman, having an argument with her that leads to them breaking up, getting back together with her, having kids and starting that book. Along the way we’ll see Tolkien invent a language, talk about the glory of writing (even though he spends a large amount of the film drawing) and talk about fellowship… and see a play about a ring… and rely on a man called Sam to help finish a great journey, did we mention this guy wrote Lord of the Rings because we have to remind you of that in some way every 6-minutes otherwise the device that’s been implanted in our necks gives a small electric shock.
I am absolutely all for a biopic that takes on elements of the person’s work and incorporates it into their story, I’ve actually previously praised the hell out of a film that did this. The Man Who Invented Christmas took the story of Charles Dickens desperate attempt to finish A Christmas Carol and actually blended it perfectly with the Christmas Carol story that we know and love. It’s a wonderful thing when they’re blended together. Tolkien does a slightly different thing, where it just slaps you in the face with obvious homage to Lord of the Rings and occasionally makes a dragon appear. Seriously, one of the people in the film literally says something to the effect of “Who would want to see a show about a ring for 6 hours”, because haha, the Lord of the Rings movies are very long, we are very good at referencing things that you know and that counts as character development now. This happens a lot, shots referencing the Lord of the Rings movies just pop up so often it could be a drinking game. Sometimes it’s interesting, like during the battle scene when the smoke from the bombs bears a striking resemblance to Sauron, but for the most part, it’s so on the nose that it’s just cringey.
While most of the performances are fine, we really need to look into getting Nicholas Hoult a back brace because I can’t imagine how much his lower back would have to hurt after carrying two films on his own within the same week. While no one else really stood out to me, I can’t deny that Nicholas Hoult gives one hell of a performance as Tolkien. He manages to make the very long-winded monologues work wonderfully, there’s an entire story built around the phrase “Cellar Door” that turns into basically foreplay and Nicholas sells the hell out of it. He makes you see the creative genius at work, coming up with an entire world and a language all on his own. He is really the element that pushes the film through its 111-minute long runtime… a runtime that, honestly, felt longer than the Lord of the Rings films, but Nicholas guided me through and made it palatable.
What made it harder to get through was the film’s weird habit of cutting out scenes that they would then later have a character explain. A scene would end abruptly and cut to the next day and the characters would talk about what happened between the end of the last scene and their meeting, again and again it just felt like they would cut things out that they could’ve shown and replaced them with someone just telling us about it. That or they’d cut out bits of information that would make things flow better, it causes things to feel a bit jagged at times and almost forces the audience to play catch-up and put the pieces together afterwards. It also really did a major disservice to J.R.R. Tolkien’s brother, Hilary Arthur Reuel Tolkien who is technically in the film, but he may as well have been replaced by a hatstand for all the relevance he had on the plot. He literally shares a room with J.R.R. Tolkien and yet he barely even appears to be a part of the film itself. It also really fudges around with time, we’re talking pretending that Tolkien didn’t even see his future wife Edith (Lily Collins) for years up until the second he was going to leave for the war… yeah, they were kind of married at that point. She was pregnant with his kid, but we need the dramatic moment where she leaves another man and makes Tolkien promise to come back for her so who cares about accuracy right? Yes, I know that time in these movies has to be pushed around for a narrative, but when it’s pushed around for a narrative that just doesn’t work it feels worse.
Tolkien is a prestige drama without the prestige or the drama. While it has good performances, especially by the lead, and a great sense of visual style it lacks in the area that counts the most, the ability to tell a story. If any movie should have a great story to tell then it probably should be the one about one of the greatest writers to ever put pen to paper. Instead, we’re given a generic biopic that ticks a bunch of boxes, plays fast and loose with history, cuts out key segments and randomly slaps a big sticker that reads “LORD OF THE RINGS WAS SO KEWL RIGHT?” on the screen every few minutes. It’s not awful, but it’s not good either. Seriously though, Mr Hoult, please take a rest because you can’t keep carrying films like that. Bend at the knees, at least.