“TOLKIEN” — 4 stars — Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi; PG-13 (sequences of war violence); in general release; running time: 112 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — You don’t have to be a “Lord of the Rings” fan to appreciate Dome Karukoski’s excellent “Tolkien,” but fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels and films will especially appreciate this sharp biographical effort that provides insights into one of the 20th century’s most beloved authors.
Karukoski’s film toggles between two critical periods in Tolkien’s life, setting the stage for the creation of the novels that would define his career. The “contemporary” narrative takes place during the author’s service in World War I, as Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) battles his way through the chaos of the Western Front to locate a childhood friend who has gone missing in action.
Flashbacks from those scenes recount Tolkien’s childhood and adolescence, which was marked by the death of his parents and the forming of new bonds with a group of kindred spirits in prep school. In the trenches of World War I, we see the foreshadowing of the epic quest Tolkien’s characters would make through the three "Lord of the Rings" novels, and in the flashbacks, we see the highs and lows of a life that would inform that fictional journey.
In scenes that are succinct and insightful, we see Tolkien’s mother (Laura Donnelly) reading and performing for him and his younger brother as children. After her untimely death, the boys are brought into the care of a patron named Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris), who houses a number of local orphans. Here Tolkien meets Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), an aspiring pianist who proves to be the love of his life.
At school, a jealous rivalry blossoms into an enduring friendship as Tolkien joins forces with a trio of classmates, including a bright young poet named Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle). As the young men challenge each other intellectually and push forward into their chosen careers — Tolkien eventually winds up at Oxford studying linguistics — their deepening bonds mirror the relationship Tolkien builds with Edith.
Along the way, Karukoski offers clear nods to the future novels (a soldier named Sam guides the officer Tolkien along the Western Front, for example), but the real strength of “Tolkien” is in the way it develops and explores those key relationships in the author’s life.
The romantic thread between Tolkien and Edith plays out with grace and is marked by some excellent scenes where Collins absolutely shines. Audiences may also appreciate how the thread with Tolkien’s classmates — which clearly foreshadows the core fellowship of the future "Rings" novels — echoes the spirit of “Dead Poets Society.”
At the same time, this drama-heavy period piece also employs some tactful and effective special effects to remind audiences that they are seeing the biopic of a fantasy author. While never as elaborate as the Peter Jackson films that would bring the novels to the screen, “Tolkien” nevertheless offers hints and flashes — sometimes only in shadow — that enhance the story without distracting from it. And the scenes that take place in the harsh reality of World War I are both subtle and haunting.
Overall, “Tolkien” is simply moving. It is well-written, well-performed and, unlike so many contemporary films, it allows its heartfelt messages to speak for themselves rather than use clunky dialogue to get the movie up on some kind of soapbox. For fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, it is a precious and worthy tribute; to non-fans, it still stands as a testament to the depth and endurance of true friendship.
Rating explained: “Tolkien” is rated PG-13 for adult themes, as well as some wartime violence and frightening imagery.