Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

boyle, glynn-carney, gibson and hoult
dir Dome Karukoski
scr David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford
prd Peter Chernin, David Ready, Kris Thykier, Jenno Topping
with Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynn-Carney, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, Craig Roberts, Pam Ferris, Harry Gilby, Adam Bregman, Albie Marber, Ty Tennant
19/UK Fox 1h52

collins meaney jacobi

Recounting the years before JRR Tolkien wrote his classic novels, this film deploys glowing cinematography and impeccable costumes and makeup, which makes each scene look almost beatific. Thankfully, the script doesn't entirely present the author as a saint, and he's played with lovely textures by Nicholas Hoult. And Finnish director Dome Karukoski carefully underplays the things that inspired Tolkien's work.
After his mother dies in 1904, John Ronald (Gilby) moves into an orphanage, as his guardian Father Francis (Meaney) encourages him to study. Gifted with languages, he and pals Geoffrey, Robert and Christopher (Bregman, Marber and Tennant) form a society to change the world with art. Ronald and Geoffrey (now Hoult and Boyle) go to Oxford, Robert and Christopher (now Gibson and Glynn-Carney) to Cambridge, but they're interrupted by the Great War. Afterwards, Ronald returns to his sweetheart Edith (Collins) and eventually begins his epic novel as a story for his sons.
Karukoski's reverent approach is visually sumptuous, including cleverly hazy glimpses of the author's fantastical imagination. The strong attention to period detail is sometimes a little distracting, as everything looks so immaculately designed that there's little space for real life messiness. Even the drama is tightly controlled, so the narrative feels sculpted to fit a somewhat dull formula. But there are also striking set-pieces that breathe life onto the screen, mainly in the interaction between Tolkien and his lively best mates.

Hoult has a strong presence as the alert philologist, obsessed with languages and passionate about his created worlds, which were yet to take shape. The actor beautifully reveals this inner life on-screen, from his romantic feelings for Edith to his camaraderie with his friends to his shattering horror in the trenches. Collins has some strong scenes in a slightly more beefy role than the usual wife. The supporting cast is solid across the board. And ace scene-stealers Jacobi and Meaney add a colourful edge to the film.

Making a movie about such a thoughtful central character is tricky, and Karukoski opts for a rather dry exploration of Tolkien's intellect rather than a more lyrical flight of imaginative fancy. And there's also the problem of framing the story before he wrote the books that have left such an indelible impact on culture. But this film is beautifully put together, and it carries several smaller emotional kicks as well as some insight into the idealism of youth. Plus of course the power of friendship, which was Tolkien's greatest theme.

cert 12 themes, violence 8.May.19

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall