Dome Karukoski/ UK/ 2019/ 112 mins
@ Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 3 May 2019
Nicholas Hoult is somewhat miscast as J.R.R Tolkien, the legendary philologist and academic who dedicated most of his life to creating an imaginary world replete with geography, history, language and spirituality. Hoult resembles one of the Oxford boating team or the college’s fencing champion despite providing a fairly likeable and slightly vulnerable portrayal of the writer. A kindly priest played by Colm Meaney guides Tolkien into Oxford via a scholarship and the sponsorship of an affluent foster guardian following the death of his mother in his formative years. The fostering experience allows him to meet the delightful Lily Collins as Edith Bratt his lifelong paramour and pseudo-muse.
Watching Dome Karukoski’s retelling of the early life of J.R.R Tolkien the viewer is provided with a variety of themes which apparently shaped his legendarium. The mistake Stephen Beresford and David Gleeson make is to presume that Tolkien’s experience of The First World War is unique. This naive and uninformed grasp of that conflict is manifested in the flashback structure as Tolkien wanders, sick with trench-fever, searching for his childhood friend in the trenches as his poor batman tries to prevent him wandering out into no-mans land. Miraculously he actually does venture unarmed over the top in the third act in a wholly farcical manner purely to spoonfeed the audience elements of Mordor in the firey killing field.
The notion that Tolkien’s trench experiences were directly responsible for shaping the timeless tropes of Middle Earth is an overly simplistic thesis ignoring the uneventful lives of other fantasy authors and world builders. Tolkien was not the only soldier who created art out of the conflict but he may have been one of the few to have been invalided out of the combat zone whilst even Edmund Blackadder failed to extricate himself from that predicament. Karukoski and fellow Finn Lasse Frank Johannssen create a pleasing recreation of the cloisters and cobbles but the emphasis on the thematic influence of the war is overdone as smoke and fire contort into The Eye of Sauron and flame-throwing Germans evoke dragons.
There is not enough detail about Tolkien’s experiences in war or an appropriate overview of his philological expertise to satiate the Tolkien completists whilst the fans of the Peter Jackson vision and WETA world building will be disappointed with the lack of CG and overt references to Middle Earth as the writers cram a relationship, university, failing exams, dead mother and war plotlines into the sub-two-hour running time.
This disparate approach to the material reduces the impact of some of the plotlines but the competent performances and believable chemistry from the leads could have produced an effective period love story. Utilising a famous person in a tangential way can be an interesting technique; Mr Holmes achieves this and on a budget and Tolkien may have benefited cinematically with a more modest approach.