Tuesday, May 21, 2019 - Updated: 2:38 pm
Director Dome Karukoski’s new biopic, “Tolkien,” pays heartfelt, passionate homage to the genesis and the genius of one of modern day’s greatest literary figures: J.R.R. Tolkien.
The film begins long before Tolkien pens his masterworks, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” It examines his formative years, presented in a series of flashbacks as a frenzied Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) looks back upon his life from the trenches at the Battle of the Somme in France.
After his resourceful and imaginative mother dies, orphaned John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and his brother, Hilary, are placed in the care of Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney), a Catholic priest who sends them to a boarding house to live and enrolls Tolkien in the prestigious King Edward’s School. There, Tolkien shows great academic promise, but initially struggles to form friendships.
In an interview with the Pittsburgh Catholic, Karukoski explained that making the film was a deeply personal experience for him, as he has discerned marked parallels between the writer’s life and his own. Karukoski was bullied in school, grew up in poverty and had an absent father. When he encountered Tolkien’s writings as a teenager, they offered healing to him and have inspired his methods of storytelling.
“I was a loner and an outsider, and so those stories I would say shaped me in many ways because they became so meaningful for me at that time in my life,” Karukoski said. “The theme of finding a home is very strong in Tolkien’s mythology and also in his life, so there were many things that I related to on a personal level in these stories.”
Animosity eventually turns to admiration between Tolkien and three of his schoolmates. In a beloved café, they form the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, a brotherhood in which they discuss life, art, literature and music, aspiring to change the world.
Meanwhile, Tolkien’s longtime friendship with fellow boarder and orphan Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) evolves into something more. The budding pianist proves a match for Tolkien’s cleverness and intellect, but Father Francis feels that the relationship poses a threat to Tolkien’s success at Oxford.
At the university, professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) nurtures Tolkien’s penchant for studying and creating languages, while World War I presents an imminent threat.
Overt references to Tolkein’s stories weave through the film: dragons and fiery Balrogs haunt the inked mists of the battlefield, where a soldier named Sam is a source of salvation to Tolkien; Edith and Tolkien dance backstage at Wagner’s opera and she playfully presents him with a golden ring.
In his letters, Tolkien wrote: “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic.” The film’s gestures to Tolkien’s Catholicism are not overt, but are present. Though he may not always agree with Father Francis, Tolkien remains deferential to him. Tolkien stumbles past the feet of a life-sized stone Christ crucified on the battlefield: is it a figment of his imagination or a miraculous remnant of civilization?
Karukoski said that filmmakers struggle to portray personal faith in their characters. He illuminated a subtle, yet particularly striking manifestation of Tolkien’s Christianity in the film. In a moment of desperation, a drunken Tolkien, faced with the desecration of his dearest hopes, falls on his back upon the Oxford grass and stares at a brilliant star in the sky. Karukoski said that star represents the Star of Eärendil, a star present in Tolkien’s later mythological writings that widely symbolizes faith.
“Religion is very deep-rooted in Tolkien, and that scene reflects very much how his writing is inspired by religion,” Karukoski said.
The film then cuts to two other moments when Tolkien gazes at the sky from his back on the ground. He smiles, hands hooked behind his head, on a golden autumn afternoon while Edith dances in the shade of the gilded leaves that glitter in the tree above them. He stares at the sky unblinkingly on a gray, war-torn battlefield, immobilized, streaked with dirt and barely distinguishable from the rubble around him.
In loss, in joy, in pain, Tolkien looks heavenward.
Karukoski wants Tolkien’s life story of love, loss and friendship to offer viewers healing and hope.
“Tolkien’s story is so much about loss,” the director said. “And yet, at the same time, his story is about hope. It’s a story about how after loss there can be hope. That’s what I hope the audience takes away when watching the film.”
The Catholic News Service classification is A-2 — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.