“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Most of us are familiar with that iconic opening line and the epic tales that follow – of Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, Gollum, the ring, and all the rest. But how much do we know about the man responsible for penning The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit? Tolkien – the new biopic from Fox Searchlight Pictures – brings J.R.R. Tolkien’s formative years to light, exploring the renowned author’s boyhood as he finds friendship, courage, and inspiration among a fellow group of writers and artists at school and then goes on to fight in the First World War. It’s an intriguing and at times heartbreaking look into the mind of the man who would go on to write his famous Middle-earth novels.
Tolkien cuts back and forth between different periods in the title author’s life – from his younger years as an eventual orphan brought up in Birmingham (portrayed by Harry Gilby) to university and ultimately the trenches of World War I (played by Nicholas Hoult). While it gets off to rather a slow start, I became truly invested when young J.R.R. Tolkien forms his own fellowship. What begins as a hesitant friendship of fellow schoolboys quickly evolves into a secret society of brothers – brothers who debate art and culture, spur each other on to greater achievements, and have the kind of bond one is lucky to experience. It’s easy to see how being a part of such a close-knit group could have contributed to another famous fellowship later in Tolkien’s life.
Other inspirations behind The Lord of the Rings are hinted at throughout the film – from dragons to spectral, sword-bearing figures on the battlefield, as well as Tolkien’s developing original language, sketches, and writings over the years. Hardcore fans of Middle-earth looking for specific references to and origins of the series should be aware that we never move too far beyond just that: hints at what was to come. While I found Tolkien’s own story interesting and compelling, the connections to his later work are more to be inferred than a strong presence in this film.
Beyond the brotherhood of Tolkien’s friends and the hints at Middle-earth inspirations to come, a major focus of the film is J.R.R.’s great love: Edith Bratt (played by Mimi Keene and then Lily Collins). Both women compellingly get across Edith’s frustrations in living life as something of a caged bird – another orphan living with Tolkien and his brother, forced to serve as a companion to the lady of their house. Despite this, Edith has a bright, determined personality and an imagination that is more than a match for Tolkien’s. It’s heartwarming to watch their relationship develop – and heartbreaking at times to see the challenges that threaten to tear them apart.
Tolkien is an effective biopic that offers insights into the fascinating life of the man behind the legendary Lord of the Rings series. While it does not delve into as many specifics of said series as many fans may wish, it’s certainly still worth a watch for the lesser-known story it tells.
Tolkien hits theaters this Friday, May 10.
Featured Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures