Review: A Convenient Glimpse of Inspiration in Tolkien

In a remarkably similar fashion to the recent Goodbye Christopher Robin (about the elements in Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne’s life that went into those stories), Finding Neverland (about the events in J.M. Barrie’s life that informed Peter Pan), and even Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (the more R-rated telling of the Wonder Woman creator), the newest, overly literal but still intriguing and captivating look at a great writer’s world is Tolkien, which examines the formative, younger years of J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Directed by Dome Karukoski (working from a screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford), the film goes from the friendships he formed as an orphan in school to his first love, and eventually to his time as a soldier in World War I, which exposed him to a level of violence that he dealt with by transforming his greatest fears into the perils in his novels.

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Portrayed by Harry Gilby as a child and Nicholas Hoult (who grows increasingly interesting as an actor every year), Tolkien finds he has a talent for languages, so much so that he’s able to invent his own—a skill he uses to give certain characters in his works their own native tongue. Some of the most interesting moments in the film are between Tolkien and Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), the frustrated companion to the landlady who runs the house in which Tolkien rents a room. Their relationship seems less about telescoping what we know is to come in the writer’s life and more about establishing a bond, which seems especially important to a young man who grew up isolated and lonely. Another connection Tolkien makes is with linguistics professor Prof. Wright (Derek Jacobi), who seems to have served as a role model for a particular old, grey-haired wizard.

The framework of the story puts Tolkien at the front line, searching for one of his original four friends that made up a club that seems to have existed to encourage each other as they embarked on separate creative and expressive journeys. Assisting Tolkien in his search is a soldier named Sam (Craig Roberts), who is fearless and selfless and has no qualms about helping his fellow man find their way to someone important. Like many things in Tolkien, the Sam reference may be true, but it feels like such a brazen coincidence that the entire film seems both overwritten and under-observed.

And while I’m sure every author gets his/her inspiration from somewhere, it almost feels silly to watch Tolkien’s reference points for his stories of Middle-Earth line up so perfectly. And since the story doesn’t follow him up to the point where he began writing these groundbreaking stories, it’s curious to reduce his life to a series of moments that line up so perfectly with them. It’s easy to derive a great deal of pleasure in Hoult and Collins together. Their relationship has an innocent charm that is wonderful to witness and appropriately frustrating to watch unfold, since neither of them has a clue what they’re doing. Still, Tolkien is a decent effort, with a likable cast and some visual glimpses into works that went on to become legendary.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.