'Tolkien' Biopic Has Satisfying 'Ring'

Nicholas Hoult stars as J. R. R. Tolkien in the biopic "Tolkien." (Fox Searchlight)

Was "The Lord of the Rings" the result of post-traumatic stress disorder? That is one of the takeaways from "Tolkien," the good-not-great biographical film from Finnish-American director Dome Karukoski of the 2017 Finnish-language effort "Tom of Finland," a portrait of pioneering homo-erotic artist Touko Valio Laaksonen. Mounting a biopic of the author of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" is an invitation to a heap of abuse. The author and his works are sacred cows among the nerds and other worshipers.

Englishman Nicholas Hoult, who's already played X-Men's Beast, a couple of zombies and J.D. Salinger, takes the title role with the lovely Lily Collins as the object of Tolkien's not exactly fiery romantic interest, Edith Mary Bratt. In opening scenes, we meet the young Tolkien (Harry Gilby) and little brother Hilary (Guillermo Bedward). Their poor, devoted mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) is a widow, who dies, leaving them in the care of stern Catholic priest Father Morgan (the great Colm Meany with a distracting dye job), who finds them a home with a matronly benefactor.

In that home, "John Ronald" meets pre-Raphaelite beauty and fellow orphan Edith, the matron's piano-playing companion. At about the same time, Tolkien impresses his classmates at King Edward's School by reciting a passage from "The Canterbury Tales" from memory in impeccable Middle English and takes up with an artsy band of brothers (a fellowship, you might say) from King Edward's, who brand themselves members of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (T.C.B.S. for short) and are vaguely iconoclastic in their beliefs in the years leading up to World War I, in which many of them will die.

At intervals we see Tolkien, who creates his own language and has a facility for dead tongues such as Gothic, sketching figures and writing lines of prose. He keeps the pages pinned to the walls of his room, a growing collage, oddly resembling a police detective's collection of homicide evidence.

Something is building up within Tolkien, and we know what it is. After agreeing to Father Morgan's injunction to stay away from Protestant Edith until he turns 21, Tolkien gets into Oxford with a scholarship to study classics. There he meets another mentor, Gandalf-ian linguist professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi), although Wright's influence on Tolkien, outside of his agreeing to a scholarship for the young man, is not very deeply explored. As usual in these biopics, the romance remains the central thing, even if Tolkien's academic and creative achievements were arguably more important to posterity. The screenplay by Irishman David Gleeson ("Don't Go") and Stephen Beresford ("Pride") is nothing if not conventional. Was Tolkien influenced by William Morris or his wallpaper? In war scenes, a sick Lt. Tolkien is aided in the trenches by a "Tommy" named, ahem, Sam (Craig Roberts). A facile connection is made between flamethrowers and dragons. In another sequence, Tolkien and Edith fail to get into a performance of one of Wagner's Ring Cycle operas. Did someone say "Ring"?

("Tolkein" contains scenes of war violence and sexy hobbits, kidding.)

This article is written by James Verniere from Boston Herald and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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