This film was made for those who know a lot about Tolkien’s writings but don’t know a lot about his faith. When watching this movie I kept on waiting for C.S. Lewis to show up, given the importance that he had in prodding and encouraging the perfectionist Tolkien to write, but he never did, nor did any of Tolkien’s other friends from the Inklings. That is not to say that this movie neglects the importance of friendship to Tolkien, because a great deal of time is spent showing the prep school friends that Tolkien made and their experiences at Oxbridge and in going off to war, but it does appear as if this film wants to look at youthful memory and experiences as being the key to understanding Middle Earth. I think that there was more to it than that, but this film is one that definitely rewards those who come into this film being able to appreciate the shire in Tolkien’s youth and see the factories of Birmingham as the forges of Mordor.
Most of this film consists of a trench-fever mad Tolkien trying to find a friend of his who turns out being dead (spoiler alert) intercut with flashbacks that move from Tolkien’s childhood where his widowed mother is trying to encourage her children to be brave, her death due to some sort of illness (probably consumption or something like that), and the experiences that Tolkien has as a student making friends as well as a difficult courtship with Edith. The courtship is made particularly difficult by Tolkien’s awkwardness, Edith’s immense and ferocious pride, the fact that she is not a Catholic and Tolkien’s guardian is a priest, but love ultimately prevails even if it’s messy and awkward love. The film also does a good job at showing the layers of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, from his appreciation of ancient languages which he freely borrowed to his own experiences and background. The film definitely does not capture the strength of his faith, though. That is not to say that Tolkien’s faith is entirely absent, but the film does not put it in the right perspective, and as is often the case the main figure of faith, Colm Meaney’s tough-minded Irish priest, is a blocking character until the end when he appreciates Edith’s devotion to the ill Tolkien.
So, how does this stack up? The cast does a great job overall. Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins have a great deal of chemistry. Colm Meaney plays a dedicated if stern priest seeking to keep the Tolkien brothers out of a desperate place, even if the film tends to lose place of Tolkien’s brother as his romance and friendships are explored. The film editing does a great job at connecting events to the subcreation of Middle Earth that goes on from these events, and that has to be praised. Where the film lacks a bit is in the writing and direction. The film is a traditional biopic and doesn’t quite move beyond it, although it is by no means a bad film overall. The writing, though, is where most of this film’s problem, particularly the way that Tolkien’s faith is under-emphasized and his adult friendships with C.S. Lewis and others are ignored as being foundational to Middle Earth. Also, the film presents Tolkien as having more of an idea of the fit between the Hobbit and the Middle Earth story than actually was the case, and that too is a fault of the writing. Overall, this film is aight but it could have been so much better in more capable hands. That is the way of the world, though.