Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Dome Karukoski|
|Music by||Thomas Newman|
|Edited by||Harri Ylönen|
|Distributed by||Fox Searchlight Pictures|
|Box office||$9 million|
Tolkien is a 2019 American biographical drama film directed by Dome Karukoski and written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford. It is about the early life of English professor J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as notable academic works. The film stars Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, and Derek Jacobi.
Tolkien was released in the United Kingdom on May 3, 2019, and in the United States on May 10, 2019, by Fox Searchlight Pictures. The film received mixed reviews from critics and was a box office bomb grossing just $9 million worldwide on a $20 million budget.
As young children being raised by a single mother, J. R. R. Tolkien and his brother receive help from a local priest, Father Francis, who must relocate them from their home to small apartments in Birmingham due to financial hardships. Their mother is supportive and loving, filling their minds with stories of adventure and mystery which she recites by the fireplace at night. She becomes ill, however, and one day upon returning home from school, Tolkien finds her slumped in her chair, dead. Father Francis becomes the boys' legal guardian, and eventually finds a kindly rich woman who agrees to take them in, providing them with room and board while they continue their childhood education. There, Tolkien meets Edith Bratt, the woman's only other ward. Tolkien is taken with Edith, whose piano playing he admires, and the two become friends.
At school, Tolkien immediately shows talent with languages, earning rough treatment from a rival classmate, Robert. When the two boys get into a fight, the headmaster—Robert's father—orders that they spend all of their time together for the remainder of the term. While both initially resent the assignment, Tolkien is soon accepted into Robert's small circle of friends, and the four—J. R. R., Robert, Geoffrey, and Christopher – form a close friendship, which grows with the years, even as they attend separate universities. Meanwhile, Tolkien continues his friendship with Edith, falling in love with her. Father Francis finds out about their relationship and recognizes that it is affecting Tolkien's grades, and so forbids him from pursuing her while under his guardianship. Tolkien is distraught, not wanting to lose the priest's financial support of his schooling. He relates the conversation to Edith, promising they will be able to be together when he reaches 21, the age of majority, but she instead ends the relationship.
Tolkien struggles at Oxford, but attracts the attention of Professor Joseph Wright, a prominent philologist. Tolkien realizes language is his true passion, and enrolls in Wright's class. When the First World War breaks out, he and his friends all enlist in the British Army. Before Tolkien leaves, Edith returns and the two declare their love for each other. At the Battle of the Somme, Tolkien, suffering from trench fever, goes to look for Geoffrey, convinced that he is calling him, but is unable to find him and collapses unconscious. He wakes in a hospital weeks later with Edith by his side, to find that Geoffrey and Robert were killed; Christopher survived but was left traumatized.
Years later, Tolkien and Edith are married with several children, and Tolkien is now a professor at Oxford himself. The film ends with him inspired to write the famous opening of The Hobbit.
- Nicholas Hoult as J. R. R. Tolkien
- Harry Gilby as young J. R. R. Tolkien
- Lily Collins as Edith Bratt, the lifelong love and later wife of Tolkien, who served as inspiration for the characters Lúthien Tinúviel and Arwen Evenstar
- Mimi Keene as young Edith Bratt
- Colm Meaney as Father Francis Morgan, a Roman Catholic priest and former protege of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who served as Tolkien's guardian and father figure
- Derek Jacobi as Prof. Joseph Wright
- Anthony Boyle as Geoffrey Bache Smith, an aspiring poet, and the closest of Tolkien's friends
- Adam Bregman as young Geoffrey Smith
- Patrick Gibson as Robert Q. Gilson, an outgoing and charismatic classmate of Tolkien's
- Albie Marber as young Robert Q. Gilson
- Tom Glynn-Carney as Christopher Wiseman, an aspiring composer
- Ty Tennant as young Christopher Wiseman
- Craig Roberts as Private Sam Hodges, an enlisted man who serves as Tolkien's batman during the Battle of the Somme, which threatens to tear the "fellowship" apart.
- Pam Ferris as Mrs. Faulkner
- James MacCallum as Hilary Tolkien
- Guillermo Bedward as young Hilary Tolkien
- Laura Donnelly as Mabel Tolkien
- Genevieve O'Reilly as Mrs. Smith
- Owen Teale as Headmaster Gilson
On November 21, 2013, it was announced that Fox Searchlight Pictures and Chernin Entertainment were developing a biographical film about the English writer, and author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien, based on a screenplay by David Gleeson. Another J. R. R. Tolkien biopic, Tolkien and Lewis, was reported to be in production a year before, but did not proceed. On July 24, 2017, Dome Karukoski was hired to direct the film with the screenplay from Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, which Chernin produced for Fox Searchlight to distribute.
Karukoski related that he had grown up fatherless and in poverty, and that because of this, he felt, as a child, a strong connection to Tolkien, who had similar experiences. Karukoski also mentioned that he had wanted to create a biopic about Tolkien since he was 12, which was when he first read Tolkien's works, and that it had been a dream of his to create film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings. He described the effect of Tolkien's works on him as "life-changing", saying that when he was bullied as a child, "it was like the characters became friends of mine." Of the author, he said: "[w]hat struck me the most is that he lived an amazing life... this beautiful, emotional story about love and friendship. So many things about what I had read about [in] the books, occurred or were instrumental in his own life. [The Tolkien film was] a film that had to be made."
In July 2017, Nicholas Hoult was reportedly in talks with the studio, as the frontrunner for the title role. On August 30, 2017, Lily Collins was cast to co-star with Hoult, as Edith Bratt, love and later wife of Tolkien, who was also the inspiration for Lúthien in The Silmarillion. Colm Meaney, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Genevieve O'Reilly joined the cast in October 2017, and Craig Roberts was added the following month. Principal photography commenced in October 2017 in the United Kingdom, and concluded on December 14, 2017.
Tolkien has grossed $4.5 million in the United States, and $4.4 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $9 million. In the United States and Canada, the film was released alongside Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Poms and The Hustle, and was projected to gross $2–4 million from 1,425 theaters in its opening weekend. It ended up debuting to $2.2 million and finishing in ninth.
On the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 51%, based on 196 reviews, and an average rating of 5.8/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Tolkien has the period trappings and strong performances of a worthy biopic, but lacks the imagination required to truly do its subject justice." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 48 out of 100, based on 37 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews." Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A–" on an A+ to F scale, while those at PostTrak gave it a 76% positive score.
Giving the film two out of five stars, Wendy Ide for The Observer commented "[a] decades-long trudge through Middle-earth would seem like a carefree skip through the park compared to this slog of a literary biopic." David Sims, writing for The Atlantic, criticized the biopic as lacking imagination and subtlety, stating, "The result doesn't rise above the insight of a Wikipedia page."
On the other hand, Graeme Tuckett of Stuff gave the film four out of five stars and called it "A subtle, delicate biopic of The Lord of the Rings author." Writing for The Plain Dealer, Chuck Yarborough graded it A, calling it "a wonderful piece of art" and "a magical film worthy of the wizardry of Gandalf himself." Yarborough later rated it the 2nd best film of the year, after Rocketman.
Criticism over depiction of Tolkien's religion
The film was criticized for giving no indication that Tolkien's faith was a central theme in his life, despite its impact on his work. Karukoski explained the decision as having been motivated by the difficulty he had portraying religion in Tolkien's life on account of its "internal[ity]." Karukoski related that he had attempted to create scenes that depicted Tolkien's more religious side, but those scenes failed to engage initial audiences and were cut from the film. Nevertheless, Karukoski explained that although there are no overt references to religion in the film, religion is still implied:
[W]e have scenes where he attends communion and helps Father Francis to show that he was a man of faith. There are also layered scenes, where he looks up to the heavens for an answer as if asking God for help. There's another scene where a figure is on a cross. Many people won’t notice those hints because they’re so eternal.
Other reviews have stated that Tolkien's Christian faith is embedded in the film much the same way that it is embedded in his Middle-earth writings.
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- Tolkien (2019) | IMDb
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