Tolkien
Directed by Dome Karukoski
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney
Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence
1 hr., 52 mins.

In college, I lost myself in Tolkien’s writings. From The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, his work exposed me to a world beyond my small-town life and my insulated academic environment.

How strange that I never bothered to know J.R.R. Tolkien, the man who created this world. It was as if he wrote in such a fashion that his words consumed his identity, and I was absorbed in them.

Forty-five years later, in the film Tolkien, someone has taken on the task of reminding me that there was indeed a man behind the writer and that his early life was a key to creating such a complicated imaginary world.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) was born to British parents in South Africa. His father died when he was quite young and his mother, Mabel (Laura Donnelly), died when he was 12, leaving him under the guardianship of Father Francis (Colm Meaney), a Catholic priest. Later, Tolkien and his brother, Hilary (James MacCallum), were given to the care of Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris) and attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham.

There he joined a group of friends known as the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or as they called themselves, The TCBS. The group included Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle) and Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney). It was a friendship they maintained into their college years.

Tolkien was from the working class, an outsider forced to survive among more elite students. Though his intelligence among his peers was unrivaled, his attitude often caused him trouble. While living with Mrs. Faulkner, he fell in love with a fellow resident, Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a young pianist who shared Tolkien’s restlessness and desire for an adventurous life.

Then came World War I. Tolkien went to fight in France. Tolkien the film intertwines stories of his youth with his terrible military experience and near death from trench disease on the front lines of the Somme in 1916.

Tolkien may be defined as a biopic, but Finnish director Dome Karukoski intends to give you a foreshadowing of the struggle to come — the war for the ring. As Tolkien lays dying in France, images of Gandalf and evil warriors appear to him in visions. As he wanders aimlessly across the battlefield, scenes from The Lord of the Rings surround him with fire and black demonic smoke.

Karukoski’s intent is clear: This war formed the future fellowship of the ring. Even if he sometimes overplays his hand and loses the subtlety of the storied images, it’s hard to fault him for his approach. Tolkien saw with his eyes what he later wrote from his heart.

Tolkien the young man as played by Hoult is precisely as you might envision him: keen, observant, quick, restless and determined not to be hobbled by snobbish English customs. The strength of the film lies in the relationships between Tolkien and his friends. This is especially true with the poet, Geoffrey, who stands as a moral compass to Tolkien’s anger and a willing rescuer when Tolkien goes off the rails.

Collins as Edith is Hoult’s equal, a woman ahead of her time, fiercely independent, yet willing to be vulnerable to Tolkien, even when his present and future are consumed by turmoil.

Tolkien is not a typical biography. It’s more of a foreshadowing and an exploration of themes in the writer’s life that eventually come to full fruition on paper. Indeed, Gandalf and Frodo and Bilbo come from the author’s internal pain, love and war. Scrolled by pen on a page, they remind us that Tolkien was a man who, like his characters, had to stumble his way through his quest. What he shared was to the benefit of us all, fellow pilgrims, who by reading his stories uncover the strength to fulfill our own destinies.