At a time when dragons are all the pop culture rage, Tolkien--a cerebral, passionate biopic of one of history's greatest storytellers that's just short of an epic--makes them mere metaphors. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's fantastical odysseys to Middle-earth taught us that wizarding wickedness pales in comparison to the savagery of mankind's malice. Lest we miss the parable, two-thirds of the way through Tolkien the film, we see Tolkien, the author-turned-soldier, silhouetted by a fire-breathing dragon as he hunches over the countless dead of the Battle of the Somme, one of the Great War's bloodiest episodes. True, the dragon's fire is all-too-obvious imagery for the 20th century's obsession with weapons of war, but it's also a moment of cinema that you will not soon forget. Though Tolkien is filled with sweeping metaphor, at its core is a steadfast heart that evokes the best parts of human nature: our love of quests, willingness to sacrifice for others, hopes for good to defeat evil and the strength we get from true camaraderie. I can't wait for you to see it, and then tell someone you love to see it too.
Tolkien's experience in World War I is the film's through-line. As we watch the 20-something Tolkien barely survive the "War to End All Wars," the film repeatedly flashes back to his childhood (idyllic), adolescence (a penniless orphan by the age of 12) and teen years (unfettered friendship with three schoolmates and unrequited love for a kindred spirit, also an orphan). It's all heady stuff, but Finnish director Thomas "Dome" Karukoski is more than up to the task, with a top-drawer creative team that includes cinematographer Lasse Frank (who also shot Karukoski's acclaimed Tom of Finland) production designer Grant Montgomery (so wonderful in the unheralded The Limehouse Golem), costume designer Colleen Kelsall (The Bridges of Madison County) and 14-time Oscar-nominated composer Thomas Newman (Finding Nemo, Skyfall).
Tolkien's first encounter with valuable fellowship begins when he arrives as a friendless newcomer at King Edward's School only to fall in with three mates who develop into the rarest of inseparable friends. Each armed with a sharp wit and desire to make a mark on the world, the outcasts discover safety in each other's company, and ultimately enlist in WWI as an alliance to confront tremendous peril, a theme that undoubtedly became close to Tolkien's heart. Later in life, Tolkien became dismissive when a cagey interviewer quizzed him about the correlation between his novels and personal life. That said, it's impossible now not to draw the connection.
Tolkien also sweeps us up in the almost-Shakespearean love story between the young student and fellow orphan Edith Bratt. After a fiery courtship based on their mutual love of art and mischief, their link was nearly severed when a Catholic priest banned the love-struck pair from so much as making eye contact until Tolkien was 21. But neither the wrath of a priest nor a war could keep them apart.
"Stay alive and come back to me," Edith tells Tolkien just before he's shipped off to a war that would claim 10 million lives, including those of 700,000 British soldiers. Survive he does, and following a long recovery and enduring love from Edith and their four children, Tolkien published The Hobbit and the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, triggering the "Tolkien effect" that echoes to this day throughout literature, movies and television.
Tolkien showcases a career-defining performance from rising star Nicholas Hoult (the X-Men franchise, The Favourite) as Tolkien; and the luminous Lily Collins—who stole Rules Don't Apply from under Warren Beatty and is currently co-starring in PBS' new adaptation of Les Miserables—shines as Edith.
Edith died in 1971 at the age of 82. On her tombstone, Tolkien inscribed the word "Luthien," the name he gave the ravishing Elven princess who sacrifices immortality for love in Middle-earth. Tolkien died two years later, at the age of 81. Inscribed on his tombstone is "Beren," the name of the mortal for whom Luthien sacrificed so much.