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What You Need To Know:
Ultimately, TOLKIEN is a great love story, not only of Tolkien and Edith’s love for one another, but also of Tolkien’s love of language, myth and storytelling. The movie extols family, faith and friendship. It also details, as Tolkien says in one scene, “the journeys people take to prove themselves, [and] what it means to love and be loved and to have courage.” Some war scenes in TOLKIEN warrant caution for older children.
TOLKIEN is an absorbing, high-class period drama about the author behind THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and how his early experiences before and during World War I shaped his art and his life. TOLKIEN tells a great love story, not only the love between a man and his future wife and children but also the love he had for language, friendship and for inspiring adventure stories that capture the imagination. Some war scenes in TOLKIEN warrant caution for older children.
TOLKIEN opens on the battlefield in World War I, during the Battle of the Somme in France, where the young Second Lieutenant, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, has come down with a case of trench fever. As the battle rages around him, Tolkien enlists the help of an aide named Sam to help him search for a friend he knew in high school and college.
The rest of the movie is told in flashbacks, starting with Tolkien’s relationship with his widowed mother, Mabel, who homeschools Tolkien and his brother and tells them adventure stories, including the German folktale about Siegfried, a prince who fought an evil dragon. However, Mabel dies when Tolkien is 12. Her will places him and his brother under the guardianship of a Catholic priest and friend, Father Francis Morgan, who raises money for the two orphans through benefactors in the Church.
At 16, Tolkien and his brother are placed in a boarding home in Birmingham, England with a middle-aged Catholic woman by Father Francis. He and four of his school chums form an art club, meeting regularly at a local tea room. Meanwhile, he meets another young boarder named Edith, who’s three years older than Tolkien. A romance ensues, but two years later, Father Francis becomes concerned the romance is hurting Tolkien’s studies in college. So, he orders Tolkien not to see Edith until he comes of age, at 21. Tolkien agrees, but his decision upsets Edith. Will she return to him after this imposed exile?
Cut to July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, where Tolkien and Sam frantically search for Tolkien’s old school chum, Geoffrey Smith, who’s supposedly fighting somewhere on the same battlefield. Will Tolkien find his friend alive?
This biopic takes some creative license in re-telling the early influences on J.R.R. Tolkien, which led him to write THE HOBBIT, THE LORD OF THE RINGS and their prequel, THE SILMARLLION. For example, Tolkien and Edith never had a dramatic pre-marital encounter at the boat taking him to the battlefields of France, but had actually become engaged in 1913 and were married in March 1916, about two months before he was actually shipped overseas. Nevertheless, parting with his wife on June 5, 1916 to go to France was a traumatic experience for them both. Especially since, according to Tolkien later, about a dozen junior officers per minute were being killed during the war.
In addition to telling moviegoers how much Tolkien was affected by his mother’s schooling and storytelling, and his fellowship with the boys of the art club, TOLKIEN also explores his fondness for language and poetry. He not only invented his own languages, but also wrote poetry in them. Later, in college, he comes under the influence of a linguistics professor he admires (played wonderfully by the great Derek Jacobi), and the two men discuss the linguistic meaning behind the word “tree” in a fun, clever scene. (Of course, as every devoted fan of Tolkien’s stories know, Tolkien loved trees and trekking through forests and wilderness and loathed the modern fascination with machines of all kinds, including the newfangled machines of war that made so much mincemeat of the French countryside during World War I.)
Flashbacks can often be a structural problem that slows down a movie’s story. However, here, the scenes of Tolkien searching for his friend on the battlefield are used to punctuate Tolkien’s story about his mother, Father Francis, his friends, the woman he loves, and his linguistics mentor in college. As the movie progresses, Tolkien’s life before the war takes precedent until the narrative catches up to the period where Tolkien is involved in the Battle of the Somme, where more than one million men were wounded and killed, the most deadly battle in history.
TOLKIEN grabs the viewer from the start, especially when it shows Tolkien’s mother eagerly telling her sons the story of Siegfried, the Germanic mythic hero, as he slays the evil dragon Fafnir. Then, when Tolkien learns of the death of this vibrant lady, the viewer can’t help but feel moved. The movie also builds a strong emotional climax as the love between Tolkien and Edith grows, as that love is challenged, and as Tolkien and his aide, Sam, search the battlefield to find Tolkien’s friend. Playing the adult Tolkien, actor Nicholas Hoult brings to life Tolkien’s own love for language, art, myth, legend, and storytelling. Lily Collins, as Edith, brings an equal passion to her portrayal as Tolkien’s romantic interest and eventual wife.
TOLKIEN does, however, downplay the strength of Ronald and Edith Tolkien’s Catholic, Christian faith (a Protestant, Edith converted to Catholicism after they got engaged). For example, it suggests that Tolkien agreed to separating with Edith for three years because he was worried about his schooling and career, but it reportedly was actually his Christian faith that led him, however painfully and reluctantly, to agree to his guardian and father figure, Father Francis Morgan’s, request to stop seeing Edith. At the first opportunity, however, Tolkien wrote to Edith and declared he still loved her.
Ultimately, TOLKIEN is a great love story, not only of Tolkien and Edith’s love for one another, but also for Tolkien’s love of language, myth and storytelling. In telling that story, the movie extols family, faith and friendship. It also details, as Tolkien says in one scene, “the journeys people take to prove themselves, [and] what it means to love and be loved and to have courage.” Of course, Tolkien’s own stories and art are beloved by millions of people around the world. Most movingly, the movie shows that Tolkien’s stories were also beloved when he tells them to his own children, like his mother before him.