Films are not the place to look for facts or cold hard Truth. Films prefer to smooth things out, preferably with a happy ending, or certainly something life affirming. Always take a biography on film with a pinch of salt. But there is always something enticing about the ideal pictures that films paint, something seductive.
On paper, a biography of JRR Tolkien seems the unlikeliest of subjects for a film. Tolkien was, as far as I know, a very traditional Englishman a world apart from those we consider ourselves to be today, a wholly different generation that possibly ended with the Great War. Fascinated by language, mythology and history, an Oxford scholar quite averse to celebrity or wealth – and likely quite ignorant of the Hollywood machine that turned his most popular works into something else entirely, making billions of dollars and earning Oscars and fabulous wealth for those involved. One has to wonder what he would have thought of the hugely successful LOTR trilogy; he may have been ruefully chagrined by the whole spectacle, and as someone who read the books in the 1970’s, I can sympathise with those that feel the films woefully inappropriate. A LOTR trilogy close to Tolkien’s original vision might be the biggest and most elaborate arthouse movies ever made, far removed from the popular-culture films Peter Jackson produced. Something more Boorman (Excalibur) than Jackson, I think.
The narrative of Tolkien is rather mundane, if understandably so- its a dramatisation of Tolkien’s early life, from his orphaned childhood to later years at college, and the narrative is how his experiences and friendships over those years, and his experiences on the battlefield of the Somme during WWI, informed his later creations of Middle Earth and the saga of the Ring, images of which are scattered throughout the film.
I suspect some liberties may have been taken. The film has the feel of… well, I’ve raised this before regards films based on true events or life stories: in making a dramatic work, you can’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Tolkien’s biography does have elements of the remarkable to it, and there is no doubt that his harrowing experiences of the Great War and the loss of his friends had a huge effect on what he later wrote in his stories. It is perhaps inevitable that the wholesome, Sunday-afternoon matinee movie feel of the film is perpetuates through the war sequences which are suggestive rather than as graphic as they might have been, the whole film perpetuating a very mild matinee sheen. I’m thinking, Downton Abbey. Maybe that’s inevitable, it seems that’s how the outside world thinks we lived in the past, our own equivalent of the Hollywood Wild West.
The film is heartfelt and well-intentioned, but lacks the darkness that I think really infected Tolkien’s actual work. In the tradition of Downton Abbey, everyone seems handsome or gorgeous or noble or good or combinations thereof, almost as if we are seeing an inspirational ideal rather than the possible reality that Tolkien lived, something that unfortunately reduces Edith to an underwritten love-interest. Its all harmless and entertaining but lacks any genuine surprises and any drama feels idealised, or distant. Its a harmless film, really.