The Inkling-tweeners

Tolkien (Dome Karukoski, 2019)

The author biopic has a real problem to navigate — we want to know what they get their crazy ideas from but it turns out they just lived it.

Picture Tom Eliot wandering down King William Street and some passing bloke in a Stetson says, “Bloody cruel month, April.”

So this film begins with Tolkien in the Somme, and it’s evident that the First World War had a huge impact on him and his fantasy (and note how the film tells us in its closing captions that he become one of the world’s most acclaimed fantasy writers — oh, that Tolkien), but by the time you meet Father Francis Morgan who moves the family from Sarehole to a Mordor-like Birmingham, you wonder if you’ve found Gandalf. And Tolkien’s batman at the Somme is called Sam, Hodges rather than Gamgee. His line about them being so far into wandering through the trench system that the destination is closer than returning back must surely be the other Sam on the way to Mount Doom. Whilst the First World War visuals are evidently Paul Nash, the film is rather too literal in its addition of ghostly Black Riders or dragons.

The bulk of the film is about a fellowship gathered together at King Edwards’s School, the other hobbits boys being from rather wealthier families, but still with need to stand up to dragons and balrogs, or at least Literature Masters. They get into various scrapes and want to be poets or composers and so on. The friendships continue, even as they head off to Oxbridge, although conveniently there’s a rugby match to bring them all together for rather too many scenes. Did they really all end up in Folkestone to be dispatched to France at the same time? And why has Folkestone’s topography changed that much?

The best scenes have the teen or adult Tolkien (Harry Gilby/Nicholas Hoult) and Lil Orphan Edith (Mimi Keene/Lily Cole) verbally sparring, with Edith getting the upper hand. Although it is the war that tears the fellowship apart, she also rather interrupts the homosocial circle of the four, as do the (was it only three?) young women they pick up and fail to seduce in an abandoned bus in Oxford. The doomed poet Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman/Anthony Boyle) seems to be presented here as having an unspoken crush on Tolkien.

It’s a long time since I read the Humphrey Carpenter biography, and I haven’t read the John Garth book that is presumably the film’s source, so I’m sure it’s as riddled with errors as, say, Stan and Ollie. There’s a rather fun swipe at Wagner for taking six hours to tell the story of a ring, which would land better if this film didn’t feel longer.

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