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maryann johanson, striking from a hidden base

Tolkien movie review: it doesn’t wander, but it’s lost

Tolkien red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

This infuriatingly reductive biopic of the Hobbit author renders him as stolid and dull, and removes all the mystery and the wonder from creative inspiration. Literal-minded and free of magic.
I’m “biast” (pro): love The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; love to learn about writers and what inspired their work
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Absolutely why not remove all the mystery and the wonder from creative inspiration and reduce it to “Dude saw this, dude saw that, I guess that’s where fantasy comes from, who can really say *shrug*.” This literal-minded, magic-free semi-biopic of Hobbit and Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien is nothing more than a tedious box-ticking exercise in running down all the bits and pieces of his life that ended up in Middle-Earth, probably. It’s reductive and infuriating, and it no way captures what must have been the weirdness and the sheer bloody-mindedness of a man who spent his life inventing languages and crafting stories around them, just for fun. Who does that? Surely not the stolid, dull man we see in this stolid, dull film.

Tolkien

Unknowable, mystical creatures, ladies. So ethereal and wispy.

Tolkien opens with the 24-year-old Oxford student (Nicholas Hoult [Deadpool 2, Mad Max: Fury Road], who is starting to look very Cumberbatch-y) foundering in the trenches of the World War I Battle of the Somme. He’s an officer because (we presume?) he’s a bit posh, and he has a devoted grunt tommy (Craig Roberts: 22 Jump Street, Bad Neighbours) apparently slavishly devoted to him. (Who knows why? We never learn. It’s just the natural way of things when a lowly prole encounters his better, perhaps. *barf*) And, if you are any kind of Lord of the Rings fan, you instantly go, “Oh, that’s Sam.” That is, Samwise Gamgee, slavishly devoted servant to Frodo Baggins who ensures Frodo can destroy the evil One Ring and keep it out of the hands of Sauron, etc etc, in LOTR. Later — hardly a spoiler — we learn that this slavishly devoted grunt tommy is literally called Sam. The completely unexplicated yet implied-clichéd connection between Tolkien and his Sam hardly makes us feel better about the lovely fictional relationship between Frodo and his Sam, though it’s clearly meant to. It makes us feel a bit icky, in actual fact. Facepalms definitely ensue.

“Dude saw this, dude saw that, I guess that’s where fantasy comes from, who can really say *shrug*.”

Facepalms have been happening all along, though, because director Dome Karukoski — who is Finnish, like the inspiration for Tolkien’s languages! (*facepalm*) — is all about underscoring every single aspect of Tolkien’s life that must have wormed its way into his invented world. (To be fair, there’s not much else in David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford’s [Pride] script, either.) Oh look! There’s the little cottage he lived in with his widowed mother (Laura Donnelly: The Program) in the English countryside, which is surely Bilbo Baggins’s Bag End in The Shire. Oh look how the horrific flamethrowers of the German soldiers in the WWI trenches become the scorching fiery breath of dragons! See! how a visit to the opera with his ladylove Edith (Lily Collins: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Mirror Mirror) is all Wagner-ish and *nudge nudge* magic-ring-y. See! how terrifying horsemen of the Great War battlefields become the Black Riders who chase Frodo and Sam across a bleakening landscape.

If only there were the slightest bit of self-aware irony or self-deprecation or maybe — Eärendil forbid — a sense of humor in any of this! There’s space for a whole “He was forged in the fires of the terrors of a fancy Edwardian English boys’ school!” here. But bits like one of his school pals — they had a Fellowship, of course — muttering, in relation to Wagner, “It shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring” land like orcshit in Mordor. Joke’s on Tolkien’s school pals, though: Peter Jackson’s magic-ring movies now run to about 18 hours (not counting the “extended editions”). And brace yourself for Amazon’s upcoming Tolkien series, which threatens to add many more hours to the collective runtime. All of which is likely why we are now saddled with this dreary and unenlightening movie.

Tolkien

Tolkien wants to be very clear about how German soldiers throwing flames down onto hapless British tommies the trenches of the Great War might morph into a dragon in the eyes of a writer.

Late in the game Tolkien is playing, the always brilliant Derek Jacobi (Tomb Raider, Murder on the Orient Express) pops up as a genuinely oddball Oxford don who inspires the young scholar to follow his passion for languages, but it’s too little, too late: all the potential for exploring the necromancy of inspiration has already been squandered. Also fuck this movie for having Edith tell Tolkien something important about his work — about words and what makes them beautiful — that he seems to discount until Jacobi’s professor tells him the exact same thing. Maybe the real Tolkien did do that — because men — but the movie should at least have the balls to acknowledge that this is a problem.

I figure Bilbo Baggins would have something withering to say about all of this.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2019’s other theatrical releases.



red light 2 stars

Tolkien (2019) | directed by Dome Karukoski
US/Can release: May 10 2019
UK/Ire release: May 03 2019

MPAA: rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate war violence)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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