Opens Friday, May 10
Once a year, usually in the winter, I find myself rereading something by J.R.R. Tolkien, the author and linguist who gifted our species with The Lord of the Rings and its inspirational Middle Earth cosmology. Tolkien’s high-fantasy mythology is good medicine for dark days. The stalwarts prevail through courage and fellowship as evil inevitably devours itself. It’s comfort reading.
Alas, there’s not much comfort to be had in Tolkien, a handsome but reductive biopic. Directed by Finnish filmmaker Dome Karukoski, the movie attempts to connect the dots between Tolkien’s life and the enduring imagery and ideas in his fiction. The author was famously traumatized by his experiences in World War I—he fought in the bloody Battle of the Somme—and here, we see silhouettes of Nazgûl and Balrogs rising from the shadow and flame of blossoming battlefield explosions.
The visual parallels are many and conspicuous: Tolkien’s bucolic childhood hamlet as the Shire, England’s grimy industrial cities as the mines of Saruman, the cozy pubs of Oxford as The Prancing Pony inn. Character equivalents are equally blunt. Tolkien’s school chums stand in for Merry and Pippin. His loyal war lieutenant is even named Sam.
It’s possible that these unsubtle techniques might be interesting, or maybe even revelatory, to those unfamiliar with Tolkien’s biography. The film hews close to the facts, and it’s always interesting to speculate about the real-life inspirations of art. But fellow Tolkien nerds, be forewarned: As a movie-going experience, Tolkien is surprisingly depressing. Its reductivism is somehow more painful for clearly being so well-intentioned.
But let us be cheerful! The cinematography is lovely, and there’s a quiet beauty to the scenes of old Oxford in autumn. The exploration of linguistics is intriguing; Tolkien invented entire languages for Middle Earth, and it’s a thrill to see his sketches of dwarven runic alphabets—well, a thrill for English majors, I suppose. One lively scene finds Tolkien drunk in the faculty courtyard, shouting Elvish insults at the heavens. Any orc can tell you, Elvish insults are the best insults. They’re infuriating.
In the end, Tolkien is a pretty, proper folly. It was doomed from the start, really. The magic of Middle Earth is a delicate thing, and you’ll find more of it in your umpteenth rereading of the books than in your first viewing of this film.
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