Proof that the makers of “Tolkien” probably chose the wrong parts of his story to emphasize comes the moment Derek Jacobi pops up on the screen. He’s the philologist Joseph Wright who gave the obscure and ancient languages buff J.R.R.Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) the direction, the course of study that would save his academic career and the background he’d need creating the exotic world, languages and names of Middle Earth in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
Their scenes together are touching, funny and such a jolt that you wonder why we’ve spent over an hour on the genteel poverty of J.R.R.’s childhood, the love affair that created the family that he’d keep entertained with stories and the formative bludgeoning that his World War I experiences, in the trenches, had on his dark fantasy epic.
All that background is important enough to touch on. But here it is routine, flatly-written and lacks the electricity and twinkle that a great actor like Jacobi can gives his few scenes.
The against-the-odds love story (Lily Collins plays Edith Pratt) that began in adolescence has a couple of nice moments and one almost-magical one. But the chemistry that would create the romantic ache meant to drive the film isn’t there.
The formation of Tolkien’s first “fellowship,” the quartet of private (“public”) school boys he’d cling to, from his teens into The Great War, rarely rises to pleasant or touching. The other three are blandly cast (Patrick Gibson, Anthony Boyle, Tom Glynn-Carney) and Hoult rarely rises above bland in these drably-directed (by Dome Karukoski) scenes of debating, motivating, teasing, drinking and quarreling.
“Tolkien” is quite aptly framed within the horrors of the trenches, a young, feverish lieutenant at the horrific Battle of the Somme, stumbling along the lines in search of a friend, protected only by his stalwart aide, a wise enlisted man named Sam (Craig Roberts) who won’t listen to his lieutenant’s fatalism.
“If I’m not back, you know where to send my things!”
Flashbacks show us a childhood of want and tragedy, the stern but supportive priest (Colm Meaney) who helped the orphaned Tolkien brothers find a home, where Ronald, as he was called, first met Edith, another orphan brought in as piano playing “companion” to the wealthy widow who took them all in.
We see the classism that leads to scraps at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, the headmaster (Owen Teale of “Game of Thrones”) who solves that by pairing up Tolkien with his tormentor by force.
“Men should be comrades wherever they come from!”
It’s all interesting enough to Tolkien buffs, but the script by — is entirely too humorless and starved of high drama to make this lengthy prologue skip by. The odd joke about Wagner’s opera “Das Rheingold” stands out.
“It shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring!”
Well, somebody wasn’t listening to THAT, were they?
“Tolkien” mopes between the dry way stations of the man’s biography, like the dullish opening chapter of a promising “Masterpiece Theatre.” The Tolkien fan, or even casual “Lord of the Rings” aficionado, may wonder “When does C.S. Lewis (“The Chronicles of Narnia”) show up?” That was the MOST formative relationship of his creative life. “When do we get into the meat of turning the important experiences (Not the love story or much of the rest, which feels like “filler.”) into the most popular and influential fantasy novels of all time?
Sadly, “Tolkien” doesn’t.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sequences of war violence
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Derek Jacobi, Colm Meaney,
Credits:Directed by Dome Karukoski, script by David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford. A Fox Searchlight release.
Running time: 1:52