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Tolkien

Posted June 1, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and weary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned – with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” –J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course Tolkien was a man of his time, and accordingly wrote what he knew. It probably isn’t a coincidence that he wrote the good and celestial elves as tall and thin and beautifully white, while the evil orcs were described by Tolkien himself as “…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.”

While that sounds awful, it’s also the application of race theory to literature written well before race theory was a thing. Moreover, as attested by the above quotation, Tolkien was extremely vocal in denying that he had written anything to make any kind of sociopolitical point and there was no 1:1 relation between anything he had written and anything outside his books. Allegory is not the same as coding, after all.

Yet here we are with Tolkien, a biopic that claims to dramatize the life of J.R.R. Tolkien (played by Harry Gilby as a young boy and Nicholas Hoult as a young man), and the events that inspired Middle-earth. Yet Tolkien’s own estate explicitly refused to endorse the movie. Even John Garth — Tolkien’s own biographer — cautioned against artistic liberties inevitably taken by the filmmakers.

“Biopics typically take considerable licence with the facts, and this one is no exception. Endorsement by the Tolkien family would lend credibility to any divergences and distortions. That would be a disservice to history,” [said Garth]. “As a biographer, I expect I’ll be busy correcting new misconceptions arising from the movie. I hope that anyone who enjoys the film and is interested in Tolkien’s formative years will pick up a reliable biography.”

So really, it appears that the filmmakers were trying to craft a love letter to Tolkien and his work. And they ended up crafting a humdrum biopic.

The plot begins just before the death of Tolkien’s mother (played by Laura Donnelly) and ends when Tolkien first puts pen to paper on “The Hobbit”. That would place it roughly between 1900 and 1930. Thirty years in the space of 110 minutes. You know where this is going.

It’s the classic biopic problem of trying to cover too much ground in too little screentime. Characters are underdeveloped, scenes and plotlines are rushed, shortcuts are abused, and themes go unexplored. The plot goes sprawling in so many directions that it’s hard to tell precisely what story the filmmakers were trying to tell, and whatever message they’re trying to convey gets lost in all the chaos.

On the one hand, the filmmakers wanted to tell the true-life fairy tale romance of J.R.R. Tolkien and Edith Bratt (played as a child by Mimi Keene, and as a young adult by Lily Collins). But the filmmakers also wanted to tell the story of Tolkien and his lifelong friends (the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or TCBS), drawing direct parallels between them and the four hobbits of the Fellowship. Obviously, Tolkien’s courtship and marriage were a crucial part of his life story, and the TCBS could have been a fine means of exploring the themes and motifs that make Tolkien’s work so timeless. Trouble is, the two plotlines are presented in such a way that they distract from each other instead of meshing together.

Then of course we have the war scenes, in which Tolkien struggles to survive the Somme. The filmmakers try to use it as a framing device, but it only serves to stop the pacing dead in its tracks every time. It certainly doesn’t help that the wartime scenes aren’t epic or immersive enough, and all the battle shots are presented with an orange/blue contrast as ugly as it is uninspired.

Saving Private Ryan, this ain’t. Then again, the filmmakers challenged themselves with blending the TCBS friendship with the wartime scenes, presenting it with fantasy visual metaphors, making it huge enough and immersive enough to be worthy as a climactic portrayal of the Battle of the Somme, and having it be tonally compatible with the rest of the movie. The filmmakers were not equal to this monumental task.

Nicholas Hoult is clearly giving this his best shot, but he’s got nothing to work with. Ditto for Lily Collins, I’m sorry to say. They do at least have delightful chemistry, which is pretty much the only reason why their whole romance subplot works at all. Case in point: There’s a fantastic scene in which the two are courting each other to Wagner, then the two of them kiss… and the camera pulls back. For something like thirty seconds. For no reason. Which actually makes the scene less intimate. Stupid.

The only other noteworthy actor in this cast is Derek Jacobi, who leaves an instant and fantastic impression as the esteemed philology professor who becomes Tolkien’s mentor. The whole movie comes to vivid life when Professor Wright takes Tolkien under his wing… an hour into the movie. And then he vanishes ten minutes later, never to be seen or heard from again. Dammit.

Tolkien was directed by Dome Karukoski, who’s apparently considered a superstar filmmaker in his native Finland. I sincerely hope that this poorly paced and uninspired movie (with the most obnoxious use of orange/blue contrast I’ve ever seen since the SciFi Channel miniseries adaptation of “Dune”) is not the best he can do. This is a by-the-numbers biopic that tries to cram way too much into too little screentime, without anywhere near the talent or ingenuity to juggle all the themes and plotlines in play.

It’s not a bad movie, just a mediocre one. Which is still nowhere near what the subject deserves. Not recommended.