“Tolkien” (2019) Review

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

A strangely immortal, simple sentence of literature. First penned in 1937 by John Ronald Ruel Tolkien, “The Hobbit” is of course, the story of Bilbo Baggins’ adventure of Middle Earth, with a dragon, a wizard, and dwarves. Dome Karukoski directs a mild version of Tolkien’s life, particularly his formative years before World War I in “Tolkien” – a film with the tagline – A Life of Love, Courage, and Fellowship – appropriately fitting. While superbly written, wonderfully acted, and masterfully shot, the biopic falls shorter than a hobbit’s stature – mostly has to do with sluggish pacing marked with strenuous editing and story decisions that ultimately lead to this film falling into Mount Doom quicker than the One Ring can.

“Tolkien” clocks in at just under two-hours (1 hr. 52 mins.), but feels remarkably longer; while in some cases this may be welcome, the film felt incredibly long barely thirty minutes in. The reasoning for this drag is largely because of the editing choices – a few scenes could have been trimmed to an extensive degree and even then, trimmed significantly more.

Tolkien in War (Tolkien, 2019, Karukoski)

The film is essentially an intercut between Tolkien’s life before World War I, where he met his friends that would later inspire him to write his magnum opus, and during World War I, which was the turning point in his life. The problem with this film, is that World War I was more of an after thought, and Sam, the solider that aides him throughout the war scenes, is even less than that – characters are written superbly and built up to mean something – until they are written off with little regard for our time spent with them.

While the cinematography is excellent and imaginative, much like the man himself was, full of references and beautiful imagery – the intercuts effect how the film is watched, they are jarring and unnecessary – it would have made more sense to have this be in chronological order so that not only we gain a sense of time and space, but also character development. In the World War I segments, even in the beginning of the film, we see a changed Tolkien, but we don’t know how or why – perhaps that is the point, but it still feels odd to have a developed character, or at least, the idea of a developed character, intercut with a character that is supposed to be the same person, but ultimately isn’t.

The truth of the matter is that J.R.R. Tolkien molded Mordor after his experiences in World War I, and while the film touches on this in an interestingly visual way, it seems to be a remarkably depressing sad footnote. The film should have either done all or nothing – it was instead, trying to paint Tolkien with broad strokes for an audience who knows nothing about the man. While the film does a service to that particular audience – it would have been of better use to showcase Tolkien’s time in the trenches in a way that mattered and was clear – this changed his life. The film does not do the war justice at all.

The TCBS, (Tolkien, 2019)

The majority of our time is spent here, and while the pacing here isn’t horrible, it is clunky and slow in multiple places, particularly, the romance between Tolkien and Edith. The film was trying too hard in making us care for the two love-birds that it felt cheap, lazy, and cliched. While the cinematography is to be praised, the editing is far too removed – shots seemed to last forever to the point where the viewer escapes into neorealism and we realize that we are watching a film instead of… well, not remembering that we are indeed watching a film.

The TCBS (Tea Club, Barrovian Society), which consisted of Tolkien and his friends: Geoffrey Bache Smith, Christopher Weisman, and Robert Gilson were well developed – later; early on, the film rushed itself – going from immediate dislike to immediate friendship – it felt as if the filmmakers were trying to tell us everything, when they could have sufficed for something good – instead, we were given something decent that was trying to tell both stories.

“Tolkien” is essentially two films slapped together – a war film and a coming of age film and even then, the coming of age film is again, two films – one in youth, and one in young adulthood. The filmmakers chose to combine all of this into one, when they should have settled for one (the coming of age film set in young adulthood). Personally, a better Tolkien film can be made here – with just a little more time and patience.

Tolkien writing “The Hobbit”, (Tolkien, 2019)

While this film does have problems, there are merits. The cinematography is stunning, the music is expertly composed by Thomas Newman, and it is visually striking – however, as Roger Deakin points out:

People confuse ‘pretty’ with good cinematography.

While the cinematography is pretty and good for the most part, there are times when even this lags – as if the editor and the cinematographer co-conspired to have every second of every shot be included.

Overall, while not completely unwatchable, “Tolkien” is not a film that is neither good nor bad, just simply… passable, and for a man as great as Tolkien to have a passable film instead of one that is worthy of the subject, is perhaps the greatest pitfall.

Well, at least the poster is beautiful. If only there was a film to match it.