Directed by Dome Karukoski
So close to accomplishing the task of being a good film, alas, Karukoski’s “Tolkien” comes up short…falling further and further in my estimation of its success as time passes. Why? After all, the acting is terrific, it’s a great looking film and the story is extremely intriguing.
Alas, the answer is that it possesses some serious flaws, one or two of which the above positive elements might have been able to overcome. But in consort, utterly undermine the film. Let’s unpack…
1. Scope vs. Length
“Tolkien” hopes to tackle the author’s life up to, and including, the publishing of his famous stories. It goes in to great detail about the most important relationships in his life, from childhood through his time on the front lines of the Somme during WWI. Had it been a three-hour(+) film, I would have happily gone along for the ride. But it would need at LEAST that much time to successfully give each area the attention it deserves. As it stands, with a running time, sans credits, of well under two hours, it simply asks us to make leaps of emotional connection that are a bridge too, too far. And not just a couple. There are more than a few reasons to compare the film’s layout to Leone’s “Once Upon A Time In America”. That movie is 240 minutes long with not a single wasted frame. Perhaps there will be a Director’s Cut in the future. But in its current iteration…nope.
2. The Emotional Arc of Our Lead
An offshoot of the above, the terrific Nicholas Hoult is simply not given enough time to go from A-to-F, never mind A-to-Z. That the ending connects with us at all is a testament to that actor’s preparation (as well as that of his supporting ensemble). It’s a shame, because you really WANT to be more invested. But you can’t help but feel as if you’ve missed something along the way.
3. Lack of Well Illustrated Post-War Psychological Trauma
Based on the extremely well-researched, conceived and shot scenes of WWI (aided, no doubt, by having Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old” nearby), it’s borderline criminal how little we are shown of the emotional effects that should be prevalent in our characters, given what they go through. We’re told that it affected them, but we see almost nothing of it…and certainly not from our lead. As a result, the third act seems brutally disconnected from the heaviness of what comes before.
4. Forced Allusions to ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’
We get it. We get it. We really do. ‘Nuff said. Oh, wait, another reference? Okay. Sure. Why not? NOW we get it. SMH.
5. Thomas Newman’s Score Couldn’t Have Less To Do With World War One
Look, no argument from me…Thomas Newman is a film music icon. His style changed the game and his compositions are gorgeous. But he hasn’t written a new score in well over five years. The main themes and elements of this score sound a WHOLE lot like that of “The Highwaymen”, “Victoria and Abdul”, “Passengers”, “Bridge of Spies”, “The Judge” and on and on. Other than instrumentation…I could play you cuts from two different films, years apart, and you would think they came from the same score. Now, that may not bother you much, if at all. But if you see as many films as I do, it is SO obvious, it takes me right out of the film. What you WILL notice, however, is how little his contemporary style has to do with scenes of war in a British period film. I’m not saying there is a specific way to score war films, but I am saying there is quite possibly a way NOT to. It’s pretty, yes, but utterly strange and jarring.
All of these combine to make the film a less than satisfying experience. BUT, as stated above, there are elements that one can sink their teeth in to. The most notable and obvious example would be the incredible pictures created by cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannessen (“Tom of Finland”) and production designer Grant Montgomery (making his major motion picture debut here, but responsible for the amazing look of “Peaky Blinders”). Gorgeous, evocative and of its time, this is a period film for the eyes to savor.
The dialogue is also sharp and intriguing. David Gleeson and Steve Beresford love language, and, as a result, this film’s spoken bits are quite musical. Mostly filled with a youthful optimism that could only have been destroyed by the inhumanity of war, the script effectively navigates jarring time-shifts, obvious hallucinations and real longings of love with great skill.
And, of course, there’s that cast. It starts with Nicholas Hoult, whose Tolkien is haunting, scarred by youthful circumstance, and exceedingly strong. Lily Collins is better than ever as the subject of his sworn love. Filling out the adult portion of his cadre of friends (a “Dead Poet’s Society”-esque gaggle) are “The OA’s” Patrick Gibson, “Dunkirk’s” Tom Glynn-Carney, and, Anthony Boyle. Boyle (most improbably, as he makes his lead feature debut here) is the standout, displaying more emotional and three dimensional range than anyone else…perhaps even more so than Hoult. It’s a terrific performance. The teen versions of each, Harry Gilby (Hoult), Albie Marber (Gibson), Ty Tenant (Glynn-Carney) and Adam Bregman (Boyle), successfully raise the stakes, and our expectations for the rest of the film. I’d be remiss not to add a quick shout of huzzah to Colm Meaney and Derek Jacobi. And a final wave of gratitude to Genevieve O’Reilly for a terrific third act scene. I have held her brutally inept performance of an American CIA officer in season eight of “MI-5” against her for so long…I suppose I can finally let it go. It was twelve years ago, after all.
So…I guess I should acknowledge that for a film I didn’t think was that great, I sure did find a lot about it to discuss. That probably means it was better than I recall. And given what’s in theaters right now, at least it’s made for adults. Listen, if you love Tolkien, you should absolutely see it. If you like cinematic versions of war served with accuracy, then this is a fine example. But as an overall experience…I can give it nothing but a whole-hearted shrug.
Damn, it was so close…