If you’re exhausted between the enormous blockbuster pomposity of Avengers: Endgame and the prospect of having your children drag you to see Detective Pikachu, you may be relieved to find out that there is some good counter-programming running in the adjacent theater that you can sneak into.

I went into Tolkien hoping for a lightweight drama to help ease the exhaustion from the blockbuster season and that’s basically what I got. Alas, that’s all the movie really had to give me. It was a cozy, two-hour breather with some occasionally subtle references to Middle Earth lore but it was little more than that.

There are a lot of angles you can hit the movie at if you’re a die-hard fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. It’s a very brief view into the life of an author and a scholar who lived a long full life that boils it’s characterization down into a few beats mostly to appeal to people who don’t have a deep understanding of the man’s life.

A lot of critics of the film have zeroed in on its lackadaisical portrayal of Catholicism as a mere footnote in his life as opposed to his obsession with language and philology. Tolkien’s influences were many. His lifelong romance with his wife Edith, his traumatic service during World War 1, the tragic loss of his parents at a young age, his friendship with fellow Oxford scholars like C.S. Lewis, his love of epic literature like Beowulf and Norse mythology, his Catholic faith as well as his love of language shaped his intellectual and artistic soul to put him in the place where he could write a book series with the breadth and moral complexity of his Middle Earth books. Religion’s most prominent role in the story is as an excuse for his priest to keep him from getting married.

To quote Father Michael Ward at the Catholic Herald,

“This handsome, earnest, yet overstuffed and poorly paced film deviates frequently from the historical record. Most seriously, it ignores Tolkien’s devout Christian faith: there is no indication that he served Mass daily as a boy or ever even entered a Catholic church. His punch-ups with Wiseman and drunken night-time profanities are, in comparison, unimportant inventions.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRmscXowX2U

The name of the game in regards to Tolkien is shallow. This is a beginners lesson on the life of J.R.R. Tolkien that anyone could better understand by reading Letters from J.R.R. Tolkien where he explains the literal meaning of his writing endeavors. Egregiously, the movie ends the moment he sits down to start working on The Hobbit.

It strides past the bitter moments later in his life that served as his inspiration for writing The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion (which was published posthumously by his son Christopher Tolkien and is widely considered his masterpiece despite relatively low sales). We don’t get to see how he thought through the process of writing his books. We don’t meet the Inklings. We don’t see Edith die late in his life. There’s a lot of his life left out of the movie.

At it’s best, it squeezes more subtle references about his life in as random lines of dialog. Sometimes this is neat like the scene where he has an entire conversation about the phrase “Cellar Door” which he considered to be the most beautiful pairing of words in the English language. The best of these scenes come in the middle of the film when he starts having deep discussions on language with his Oxford professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi). At other times he’s drunkenly rambling literature references.

All we really get are some fun scenes where a young Tolkien, portrayed by the very talented Nicholas Hoult, hangs out with his primary school and college buddies, gets drunk, falls in love and goes to war. Evidently, a great deal of this is apocryphal. At it’s worst, the movie feathers in trite references to Middle Earth to suggest without subtly that THIS IS WHERE THAT FAMOUS SCENE IN LORD OF THE RINGS COMES FROM. These scenes lack inspiration.

I won’t deny enjoying the film but I also won’t begrudge anyone with an investment in the life of J.R.R. Tolkien despising the film. It’s mostly enjoyable as a film for what it isn’t. It’s not a bombastic Hollywood blockbuster. It’s two hours of light drinking and hanging out with a “fellowship” of smart young men. Maybe that does sound appealing right now but it won’t make for a movie that stays in your memory.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRmscXowX2U

 
 
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