Dome Karukoski (2019)
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not am not an average moviegoer who may have decided to come see Finnish director Dome Karukoski’s new biopic Tolkien, about the formative years of the creator of the modern fantasy genre, because of a fondness for J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels TheLord of the Rings and The Hobbit, or of the films that helped re-popularize them for the 21st century. If I were, I might have found this film a cozy and entertaining rendition of the author’s life, as a good percentage of its audience seem to have done: At latest count, the movie has an 86 percent positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com. This, of course, reflects an audience predisposed to like the film, since they already like Tolkien himself. Critics, by the way, have been less kind to the film: Rotten Tomatoes finds only 49 percent of critics giving the movie a favorable rating. This 37 point gap is quite unusual, and I’m not sure I can explain it. Most of the critics dislike the film for rather vague reasons—it’s not imaginative enough, many say, considering the fact that its subject is one of the greatest imaginative minds of the 20th century. It’s fairly generic, they say. It’s slow-moving at times. But these are trifles.
As for me, as I said, I am not the average moviegoer in this case, having published a 700-page Critical Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien back in 2011. Perhaps it put me at a disadvantage to come to the movie with so many preconceptions about the author’s life, since one must, in the case of all biopics, allow for the fact that movies will take some license and will fictionalize part of the story in order to create something more dramatic than the bare facts, and so perhaps arrive at a certain truth about the subject that transcends the facts. I understand this. But allow me to say: That is not the case here. In fact, the most egregious alterations of fact in this film actually made for a less dramatic and interesting story than sticking to the actual facts could have.
The film focuses on the years from 1908 (when Tolkien was 16), which is when the orphaned Tolkien and his brother Hillary moved into a boarding house in Birmingham, run by Mrs. Faulkner, and when Tolkien met and fell in love with 19-year old fellow boarder and orphan Edith Bratt; and December 1916, when the (nearly) 25-year-old Lieutenant Tolkien, suffering from the ravages of trench fever, was invalided home from the battle of the Somme in the First World War to recover his health and, ultimately, to settle down with Edith. Aside from an early montage of life with his dying mother and a final montage of life with Edith and his children years later, the film focuses on his relationship with Edith and with his friendships with three close friends from King Edward’s School in Birmingham, with whom he formed a club called the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club, Barovian Society)—named for Barrows, the tea room in which the group would meet.
All of this makes perfect sense: These years were for Tolkien the most emotionally tumultuous, and the most formative in his life. They are the perfect subject for a movie about him. And Nicholas Hoult (best-known as the Beast from the X-Men movies) and Lily Collins (who was Snow White in Mirror, Mirror) manage to come off as likeable and believable as Tolkien and Edith (Collins bears a striking resemblance to pictures of the young Edith). But screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford manage to distort, omit and puzzlingly add so many important details, and for no apparent reason, that the film actually becomes hard to watch. Let me count the ways:
- Tolkien’s mother Mabel died when John Ronald was 12. She died of diabetes. Yet Gleeson and Beresford have him tell Edith at one point that he doesn’t know how his mother died. What?
- Father Francis Morgan, played here by Colm Meaney (best known from his years on Star Trek: the Next Generation), was appointed by Mabel as the boys’ guardian when she died. She did so because he was a kind and loving man. Meaney portrays him here as, well, something of a meany. But in fact Tolkien and his brother Hillary were very close to him, and he provided a needed parental figure during their formative years. It is true he forbade Tolkien to see Edith, but chiefly because he had promised to do his best to raise the boys and it seemed that Tolkien would not get into Oxford if he was distracted by his infatuation with her. Tolkien agreed out of his deep respect for Father Francis.
- And because Tolkien was a devout Catholic all his life. A detail that the screenwriters seem not to have deemed especially important, but which underlay Tolkien’s entire philosophy of “secondary creation,” which is what he called his creation of Middle Earth, deemed as a pious imitation of God’s own primary creation of the world. In part Tolkien’s faith was formed by his close relationship with Father Francis, and was crowned by his eldest son John’s own ordination as a Catholic priest. All of this, of course, also played into the difficult relationship with Edith, who agreed to convert to Tolkien’s faith before they were married—an act that cost her nearly all her closest friends. Such things were far more significant a hundred years ago than the film acknowledges.
- The actual story of Tolkien’s proposal to Edith is farmore dramatic than the film portrays. Forbidden to contact Edith while under Father Francis’s guardianship, Tolkien waited three years until the day he turned 21 (January 3, 1913), at which point he wrote to her and expressed his love. She wrote back to tell him she was engaged to another man, at which point he hopped on the first train to where she was living in Cheltingham and swept her off her feet, convincing her to break her engagement and agree to marry him. Ultimately he married her shortly before he left for the war in France. For no reason that I could tell, this film ignores that dramatic encounter and has him simply meet her by accident as he’s going off to war. Why on earth?
- The T.C.B.S. was vital to Tolkien’s growth and his commitment to become a writer. Formed with the son of King Edwards’ School’s headmaster, Rob Gilson (Patrick Gibson of TV’s The OA), the young poet Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle of TV’s Ordealby Innocence), and the young musician Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney of Dunkirk), it is quite true that the group, in their naïve innocence, did vow to change the world through art, and encouraged one another in their artistic efforts. It’s true that Gilson died on the first day of the Somme, and that Smith died later in the year, though Tolkien heard of Smith’s death via a letter from Wiseman after his return to England. But the film makes the completely unfounded suggestion that Smith was gay and was sexually attracted to Tolkien. ScreenwriterStephen Beresford was apparently behind this depiction, reading between the lines in some of Smith’s letters to Tolkien, which do express a close friendship—a fact that apparently can only be interpreted in today’s world as sexual. In his last letter to Tolkien, expressing his sorrow at Gilson’s death, Smith wrote:
My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight there will still be left a member of the TCBS to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. … May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.
So, that means “I’m in love with you”? What the hey? It’s likely this kind of distortion that convinced the Tolkien estate to distance itself from the film, issuing a statement that “they did not approve of, authorize or participate in” the project.
- There’s this little thing called The Silmarillion? Sure, most moviegoers don’t know about it, but Tolkien had not conceived of The Hobbitor, much less, Lord of the Ringsduring the period this movie covers. It’s his earlier mythology that he was putting together at this point. The film flirts with an image of Edith dancing under the trees, an image that reappears several times in the film, that recreates one of the profoundest moments in Tolkien’s entire life: It occurred after he returned from France and, during his recuperation, when she danced for him under a tree, and he was inspired to create the legend of Beren and Luthien—the mortal man who falls in love with an elven princess. Through their lives, Tolkien always thought of Edith as his Luthien, and himself as Beren, and had those named inscribed on their tombstone. The film never explains the image, and refers to the names on the tombstone in a last note with no explanation, which makes it more confusing than edifying. Why should the filmmakers include this motif if they weren’t going to make anything of it?
- Last and most heinous, the film, which alternates between scenes of Tolkien on the Somme battlefield andflashbacks of his earlier days, spends a long, climactic scene with the fevered and halucinatory Tolkien stumbling around on the Somme battlefield looking for Smith, but seeing shadows that look like dragons, ents, or creatures out of Mordor. That never happened, of course, but sometimes such scenes can encapsulate something important to the film’s overall theme. That’s not what happens here. The scene is so absurd, since Tolkien comes out of the experience alive—apparently all one had to do to survive the single bloodiest battle in European history was to wander aimlessly around the battlefield looking for your dead friend. It’s a scene that bends audience incredulity to the breaking point.
Oh to be sure there are scenes in the film worth watching, most notably a scene between the student Tolkien and Oxford Professor Joseph Wright (a delightful Derek Jacobi), who inspires the young scholar to focus on Philology after he fails to thrive in Classics, but these are few and far between, and they don’t make up for the gaffes. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one. Apparently there are two other Tolkien biopics in development right now. We can only hope they will be better than this one.
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When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.
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