“We should form a club,” says one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s (Harry Gilby) teenage school friends. “A fellowship!” the friend says. The four boys agree and pledge loyalty with a solemn quadruple handshake. “Now what do we do?” asks one. “We change the world with the power of art!” says another. They’re students at King Edward School in Birmingham, England, 1906. Orphaned Tolkien is a newly enrolled student. That’s the setup for this fictionalized biopic, “Tolkien” – author of “The Lord of the Rings” – his youth through university and World War I.
Will Tolkien and Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) fall in love? Does Tolkien earn the scholarship he needs for university? Is “Tolkien” a must see? It is, if you — like me — love “The Lord of the Rings.”
One of many pleasures in “Tolkien” is its excellent cast. Nicholas Hoult is stalwart, older John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973). (Harry Gilby plays young Tolkien.) Lily Collins is appealing as orphaned Edith Bratt. Mimi Keene plays young Edith who, like Tolkien, lives at frumpy Mrs. Faulkner’s (Pam Ferris) home for orphans. A serious and talented pianist, Edith practices in the parlor. “Can’t you play something more cheerful, dear?” says Mrs. Faulkner. Tolkien’s school and university chums, Robert, Christopher and Geoffrey, are well-played by two sets of actors: Albie Marber, Ty Tennant and Adam Bregman are young Tolkien’s friends; Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynn-Carney and Anthony Boyle play Tolkien’s friends at the university. “This is more than a friendship,” says older Christopher. “This is an alliance – an unbreakable alliance.”
Others in the strong cast include Colm Meaney as Tolkien’s Catholic priest/guardian, Father Francis. “I want you to fulfill your duty,” he says. “and, so help me God, you will fulfill it!” Laura Donnelly is Tolkien’s dying mother, Mabel, who home-schooled Tolkien and his younger brother. Derek Jacobi, in a cameo, plays Tolkien’s university Gothic-language professor.
“Tolkien” is a traditional biopic, a treat to look at, with polite dialog and characters we care about. Directed by Dome Karukoski, from a script by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, “Tolkien” benefits from handsome cinematography by Lasse Frank Johannessen. The filmmakers seem to have shared two goals: dramatize Tolkien’s formative years and entertain fans with visual and narrative references to Tolkien’s masterwork, “The Lord of the Rings.” In both respects, I’d say they succeeded.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of war violence, “Tolkien” runs 112 minutes. I’ll see this one again.
Early life of “Tolkien,”
J.R.R. and friends;
And hobbits at the end.