Director Dome Karukoski’s “Tolkien” is an old-fashioned biopic that examines the early life of J. R. R.Tolkien, who was born in 1892 an died in 1973, in a manner that shows the literary seeds that led to his becoming the famed author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings." Nicholas Hoult gives a creditable performance as the author-to-be in the film, with a screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford. Mostly, the territory covered is the period of Tolkien’s education when he bonds with a group of fellow students who commit to friendship forever.
There is, however, a forced structure of flashbacks that become annoying. Tolkien is depicted as a soldier in World War I who is trying to survive amid the horror of trench fighting, and is also looking desperately for one of his buddies in hope that he can find him alive. What’s annoying is the repeated back and forth from that situation to the earlier days. One flashback and a later return to the battle scene would have been enough.
The film does depict the school days atmosphere well, and there is a warm handling of the problematic relationship between Tolkien and the effective Lily Collins as Edith, whom he leaves because of pressure in the first stages of their romance by Colm Meaney as the priest who looks after him following the deaths of his parents. But the lovers later connect and he and Edith will eventually marry.
One especially pleasing scene occurs when as a student, he takes Edith to an opera, but finds there are no more seats he can afford, only the expensive dress circle. He then tries to sneak into the opera with Edith through a side door. But they find themselves stuck in the basement, which is stacked with costumes. Edith dons one and mouths the words she hears from the stage, and the two dance romantically. Somewhat corny, yes, but deeply felt.
The style of the film is tradition-bound, but there are many effective moments as we see Tolkien’s life being shaped, and the horror of World War I and the toll it took on young men is emphasized. We also get some insight into what an Oxford education was like at the time. Derek Jacobi has a role as a tough professor depicted as being an inspiration to Tolkien. A Fox Searchlight release. Reviewed May 10, 2019.