Some films are made for watching on a Sunday afternoon. They tend to be films that are relatively slow of pace, centred on personal drama with a side of some semblance of trauma whilst favouring talking over action. They’re often period dramas and are regularly, though not always, biopics.
Can you see where I’m going with this?
Tolkien is very much a Sunday afternoon film. It’s a period drama that is, arguably, the ‘true’ story of one of the greatest British writers of the 20th Century. It’s not actually about his books though, the film stops before that. Instead it’s about what made John Ronald Reuel Tolkien the great J.R.R Tolkien, the experiences during childhood, adolescence and early adulthood that made him one of the Godfather’s of the fantasy novel.
The film’s greatest problem is how it makes all of that potentially interesting stuff so boring. The film drifts from one moment in his life to the next, often with only a mild degree of correlation or correspondence between them, and rarely with any founding in time or location. This is epitomised by the choice to have a title read as ‘Oxford, some years later’. It’s a biopic that somehow glosses over things whilst also simultaneously spending too long on them too.
Hoult is perfectly fine as the late teen/adult Tolkien. The role requires nowhere near the depth and shade of his scene-stealing part in The Favourite. Instead his character treads the well-worn path of the literacy biopic in a perfectly serviceable way, providing very good ‘thinking seriosuly whilst leaning over a piece of paper trying to write’ face and enough potency in the emotional beats of the film. Lily Collins is also fine as Edith Bratt, the great love of Tolkien’ life and the muse of much of his writing, particularly his female elves. But she’s given very little to actually do aside from ‘inspire’ him, to the extent she is essentially a Manic Elf-ie Dream Girl. Derek Jacobi is the stand-out in the small role of Tolkien’s beloved professor.
Tolkien’s friendships with his fellow creatives are well played out, in fact they serve as some of the most enjoyable bits of the film. But they too are tainted with the sense that this all familiar and has been done before. They, like the film overall, are ‘nice’ and ‘fine’, just not all that memorable.
Tolkien is out in UK cinemas May 3rd.