Review: 'Tolkien' explores 'Rings' author's early years

Nicholas Hoult stars as the 'Lord of the Rings' author in stiff biopic

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Nicholas Hoult in "Tolkien."

In "Tolkien," we don't see J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) writing "The Lord of the Rings." That would be too obvious.

Instead, we learn about Tolkien's pre-"Rings" days, the fellowship he had with his pals (see what they did there?), and the fire-breathing dragons he envisioned when he was on the battlefield during World War I. 

All of which point to his authorship of "The Lord of the Rings," in that stifled way that biopics use to offer clues about the inner workings of a writer's mind. Why, he had to see dragons on the battlefield, or else why would he have written about them? It's a far-too-common storytelling device — similarly deployed in 2017's "Goodbye Christopher Robin," the story of "Winnie the Pooh" creator A.A. Milne — and rather than celebrating the creative spirit, it diminishes it.  

Such is the case with "Tolkien," a mostly stiff telling of Tolkien's early days as a student at Oxford, his relationship with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), and his time spent in WWI. The way it is told, you half expect a character named Gandalf to show up and give young J.R.R. a pep talk. 

Director Dome Karukoski treats Tolkien and his story with reverence, and Hoult plays him with handsome rigidity. But neither the story nor portrayal ever come to life.

We see Tolkien as a man with a deep respect for the written word and a tight bond with his friends. But "Tolkien" — which Tolkien's family has publicly distanced themselves from, inadvertently implying there's something wrong here — comes across with the route competence of a book report. 



Rated PG-13: for some sequences of war violence

Running time: 112 minutes