Teasing out the myriad influences on any artist creating a timeless masterpiece is tricky business, but Finnish director Dome Karukoski does an admirable job of it in Tolkien, an evocative dramatization of the late linguistics professor and beloved fantasy author’s early life.
Per the film’s official premise: “As a child, J.R.R. Tolkien becomes friends with a group of fellow artists and writers at his school, with whom he finds inspiration and courage. Their bond of fellowship grows with the years, as they experience life together. Meanwhile, Tolkien meets Edith Bratt, with whom he falls in love. But when World War I breaks out, Tolkien’s relationships with his friends are tested, an act which threatens to tear their “fellowship” apart.” Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite) heads the cast in the title role, with Lily Collins (Okja) playing Edith.
The broad strokes of those formative years provide the backbone of the film. In 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in modern-day South Africa while his bank manager father, Arthur, had left England to manage a branch of the British bank there. When Tolkien was three, his mother, Mabel, took him and his younger brother, Hilary, for an extended trip to England. His father was meant to join them but died of rheumatic fever, leaving the family with no source of income. Mabel and the children wound up living in Birmingham with her parents, and the nearby village of Sarehole would end up inspiring various scenes in Tolkien’s novels.