'Tolkien' review: Before Middle-earth, the 'Lord of the Rings'-bearer goes to war

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune
Nicholas Hoult and Derek Jacobi star in  "Tolkien." The movie opens May 10 at Regal West Manchester.

Facts matter in fictionalized films about famous writers, but only as much as that word "fictionalized" can comfortably allow. In the cliche-prone realm of the biopic, it's hard enough to make writers (or anybody else) talk, act and feel like plausibly authentic, dramatically viable human beings, pulled inward by their imaginations, pulled outward by love, or cataclysm.

Good — the recent "Colette," for example — is rare enough. Great — Bennett Miller's "Capote" — is infinitely rarer.

With a faint plop, "Tolkien" lands in the marshy middle ground of disappointment. Without seeing it, the J.R.R. Tolkien estate denounced the film about the "Lord of the Rings" creator's early years as something "they did not approve of, authorize or participate in." Therefore, the estate's representatives said in a harrumph of a statement, the heirs "do not endorse it or its content in any way." (The estate's recent $250 million deal with Amazon, granting the rights to a "Lord of the Rings" prequel series, was a different story.)

Preceded in 1937 by "The Hobbit," Tolkien's "Rings" trilogy remains the benchmark for a brand of world-building high fantasy we see playing out, in its outlandish, brutal-underbelly extremes, in the farewell season of "Game of Thrones." As an origin story "Tolkien" has plenty going for it. Its freewheeling version of how John Ronald Reuel Tolkien found love early with his fellow orphan Edith Bratt and endured the horrors of the Battle of the Somme in World War I offers ready-made drama. Now: How to reformulate so that it doesn't feel ready-made?

Nicholas Hoult portrays Tolkien, a Catholic; Lilly Collins is Bratt, whose Protestant upbringing didn't go down well with Tolkien's guardian, Father Frances Morgan (Colm Meaney in a role more pinched than his disdainful expressions). Morgan blamed Bratt for distracting Tolkien from his studies, and after failing an Oxford entrance exam, disqualifying him from a scholarship, the priest forbade Tolkien from any contact with Bratt until he was 21.

He had his friends, though. A fellowship of like-minded writers and idealists was forged when Tolkien, poet Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle) and two others joined forces while attending school in gray, grimy Birmingham. Screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford imagine young Tolkien in 1916, at the Somme under fire, suffering from "trench fever" and envisioning massive, swirling dragons in the smoke and carnage. These are dragons from Tolkien's own literary future, preying on his feverish mind.

Flashbacks to earlier days commence, as we see Tolkien and Bratt courting, having tea, playfully tossing sugar cubes onto the hats of nearby society ladies (a factual detail, for the record). Much of "Tolkien" is strictly boys' club Neverland, as Tolkien and his male comrades debate their latest attempts at literary greatness. "We'll change the world," one says, "through the power of art!"

Tolkien did just that, but Finnish director Dome Karukoskistruggles to find a rhythm amid the welter of flashbacks. Pleasant screen company (and more than that, with the right material), Hoult and Collins lack an activating spark, though the script's stilted quality is the real problem. Now and then a good scene emerges: a brief encounter between Tolkien and the aghast mother of one of his colleagues or the scholarly byplay between Tolkien's philology mentor at Oxford (Derek Jacobi) and the man who would be king of Middle-earth.

C.S. Lewis said it: Tolkien lived "inside language," either English or the Elvish embroidery of his own devising (which owed a lot to Finnish). The movie seems peculiarly reticent about this crucial side of the writer's personality. Too often "Tolkien" lumbers up to its big moments, such as the preposterous climax involving the title character scrambling around the western front, calling out his schoolmate's name. Fact or fiction isn't the issue. Either way it plays like hokum.

2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sequences of war violence)
Running time: 1:51