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Movie Review

In Sarehole Mill lived a writer.

Not a nasty, dirty potboiler writer, nor yet a bare, clipped, minimalist writer. Bluntly, he wasn’t a writer at all just yet; just a child running through hill and heather with a stick in his hand, filling his world with knights and dragons and forgotten quests. The writer, as we know him, came later. But for the young J.R.R. Tolkien, this is where it began. Sarehole Mill was home, and that meant comfort.

But as Tolkien the writer would later emphasize, every great story needs its share of trials—a departure from home and into the wilds. “Boys, we are going to face some difficult times,” his mother, Mabel, warns Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary. And she was right.

Tolkien’s father had died years before. Mabel needs to find work to support her small family. And so the Tolkiens move away from the Shire-like lands around Sarehole Mill and into the dirty heart of Birmingham. Soon after, Mabel dies too. The two orphan boys are foisted into the protective custody of Father Francis and the Catholic Church.

Father Francis find the lads a home—or, at least, boarding—with the kindly (if supercilious) widow Mrs. Faulkner. Tolkien is sent to a top-notch prep school and becomes friends with schoolmates who hail from far more comfortable circumstances. Soon, the four chums form a fellowship of sorts: the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, they call it, ot the TCBS for short. And even as their parents push them toward more practical careers, they swear to change the world through art: Poetry. Painting. Music. Writing.

But another relationship pulls at Tolkien, too. Edith Bratt is a fellow orphan, a fellow boarder at Mrs. Faulkner’s home, and a fellow artist—a pianist with a love of Wagner. She’s beautiful, too. Almost elvish.

But as Tolkien grows in stature and spirit, dark clouds gather at the edges of his life. He’s still a poor orphan, his schooling entirely dependent on scholarships and the generosity of the Catholic Church. The always-squabbling countries of Europe edge ever closer to what could be a cataclysmic war. Edith feels the pressure around them, too—a pair of poor, would-be soulmates in a time when only wealth could reliably open doors.

“I let myself believe that there are happy endings for people like us,” she tells Tolkien. “But there aren’t. There can’t be.”

But Tolkien believes there just might be yet—if they’re willing to carry the necessary burdens and embark on the necessary quest. Peril is a part of the process, after all.

Becausse as Tolkien would later say, “A safe fairyland is untrue to all worlds.”

Positive Elements

J.R.R. Tolkien doesn’t exactly come across as an epic, self-sacrificial Frodo in this biopic. His heroism is a bit more understated here. His core virtue in the film—much like Frodo’s, really—is his tenacity. He seems to commit emotionally to Edith for life quite early, even as their budding relationship runs into loads of challenges. And his love for languages—even the ones he makes up—requires sacrifice, too. Initially a classics major at Oxford University, he has to prove to the school’s intimidating philology (language) professor that he’s worthy of switching majors and finding a seat in the professor’s already over-stuffed department.

In some respects, the people around Tolkien are the real heroes here. His mother helps build a love of story in Tolkien. His prep-school comrades, all of whom come from wealthier, more secure backgrounds, take him in and make him their kindred brother. And Edith helps Tolkien (who’s already experimenting with made-up languages by this time) see the real power of words.

“Things aren’t beautiful because of how they sound,” she tells him. “They’re beautiful because of what they mean.” This revelation moves Tolkien from merely relishing how his words float off the tongue toward imagining (eventually) the fantastic stories they’d help form.

Finally, during World War I, a soldier (suggestively named Sam) cares for and protects Tolkien as well as can possibly be expected.

Spiritual Content

The real J.R.R. Tolkien was a man of deep faith, but his Catholic convictions are underplayed in this biopic. It wasn’t an intentional slight, according to a film-fest interview with director Dome Karukoski. “Visualizing religion is one of the most difficult things [to do] on film,” he says. And when he attempted to do so with a couple of scenes, those scenes fell flat with test audiences.

Still, we see religious references now and then. When Mabel tells her children that difficult times are ahead, she adds, “We are lucky to have the [Catholic] Church support us.” We see that support mostly in the guise of Father Francis (whom the real Tolkien considered almost a genuine father). Always wearing his clerical collar, Francis watches out for the Tolkien boys as best he can (though he takes a dim view of Tolkien’s relationship with Edith).

And in the wake of World War I, Father Francis laments how difficult it is to comfort those who’ve lost so much. “Words are useless,” he tells Tolkien. “Modern words, anyway. I speak the eulogy. There’s a comfort in distance … in ancient things.”

But orthodox Christianity is not unalloyed here. Tolkien references the Norse goddess Hel (a deity of death and the underworld), and the boys use “Hel Heima!” as a rallying cry, reminding themselves to live every moment to the fullest. Wagner’s frequently referenced Ring Cycle features lots of Norse gods and goddesses as characters. Tolkien talks about magic often, telling Edith that she deserves a world full of it.

Tolkien, in the grip of a horrible fever on a World War I battlefield, seems to have visions and/or hallucination; and in one he sees Christ hanging from a cross in the middle of a war-torn field. Tolkien’s prep school is a religious one, and boys sing a hymn in a gathering room festooned with stained glass. A poem by one of Tolkien’s boyhood pals speaks of the immortality of the soul.

Sexual Content

One of Tolkien’s friends, Robert Gilson, shows off a couple of his paintings featuring mostly nude women. (“What I need is live models,” he grumbles.) He also crudely discusses what he considers to be the ideal hot-blooded female (gesturing to his chest as he does so) and jokingly proposes marriage to a buxom waitress.

Tolkien relates to Edith, by comparison, with a bit of almost worshipful remove. While he does go out on a date with someone other than Edith at one point, Tolkien seems wholly uninterested in her—pining instead for his fellow boarder. The two kiss sometimes (the camera backing out of a room during a particularly long smooch), and Father Francis notes with horror that Tolkien was seen leaving Edith’s room late one night. (Tolkien insists the two were just talking.) Each professes love for the other, and they entwine hands in a surprisingly intimate way at a fancy restaurant. (The real couple eventually married and stayed that way for nearly 55 years, until Edith died.)

Tolkien makes a disparaging reference to Father Francis’ vow of celibacy. He also grouses about his own forced purity.

[Spoiler Warning] The movie seems to suggest that Geoffrey Smith, one of Tolkien’s best friends, had same-sex leanings. When Tolkien learns that Edith’s on the verge of marrying someone else, he pours out his heartache to Geoffrey. “Perhaps there’s a kind of beauty” in unrequited love, Geoffrey tells Tolkien, looking at his friend with a certain longing, adding that it’s “never tainted by reality or overuse.” Tolkien squeezes Geoffrey’s arm in unspoken sympathy and understanding. If Goeffrey is attracted to Tolkien, he never truly acts on it, or on any other male relationship for that matter: It would’ve been, naturally, quite shocking in that era if he had. But after Geoffrey dies in the war and his mother asks Tolkien if her son “ever knew love,” Tolkien tells her that Geoffrey was “the person who most embodied what it means to love. And to be loved.”

Violent Content

Technically, most of the movie is told in flashback. When we first meet Tolkien, he’s in a trench during the infamous Battle of the Somme—a clash that resulted in a staggering one million casualties. The battlefield takes on a nightmarish quality here, and Tolkien’s fever only heightens its horror. He imagines dragons breathing fire as real-world flamethrowers are sprayed into trenches. (At least one man catches fire, running through the trench aflame.) Gas attacks add another surreal element to the battle, with Tolkien sometimes seeing specters in its green mist through his creepy gas mask.

We see dozens of soldiers thrown around by explosions or shot down by enemy gunfire. Scores of corpses line a crater filled with crimson-colored mud. The dead seem to be everywhere. And in Tolkien’s hallucinations, he sees people cut down by sword-wielding enemies, some of whom seem to take on the characteristics of the Uruk-hai. In another vision, an apparent Balrog-like creature towers over the battlefield.

When we flash further back in Tolkien's story, we see that he doesn’t hit it off with his future best friends immediately. During a rugby game, he gets into a fight with Robert, and the two mud-covered boys are sent to the headmaster’s office. (We see other scenes featuring the inherently violent sport of rugby elsewhere, too.) Tolkien punches another friend in the face: The next day, we see a couple of half-healed cuts.

Tolkien holds his dead mother in his arms. As the Tolkien boys are set to meet Mrs. Faulkner, Francis jokes that she’s “an enormous beast with great scaly feet … stewing what I can only assume is the femur of a small boy." We see imaginary knights fight each other. Tolkien and others engage in play-acting featuring play swords. There’s a reference to decapitation.

Crude or Profane Language

A couple of misuses of God’s name, one use of the word “a--” and another of the British profanity “bloody.” We also hear some other, less profane put-downs such as (for instance) “guffer” and “sod.”

Drug and Alcohol Content

Not only does Tolkien drink to excess here, but it pays off. He gets wildly drunk and staggers to the dormitory where Oxford’s professors reside, babbling in one of his made-up languages on the lawn. Prof. Joseph Wright, who teaches philology there, hears him and, the next day, asks the hung-over Tolkien about the unfamiliar tongue.

Tolkien and his friends often drink together, and sometimes they seem to over-imbibe. (They seem to be a bit tipsy when carousing with a few females on a stolen, deserted bus, for instance.) Richard makes a reference to desirable serving women “holding large flagons of wine on their hips.” We see Tolkien with a pipe in his later years.

Other Negative Elements

Tolkien and Edith toss sugar cubes onto ladies’ hats in a fancy restaurant, earning them a hasty, forced exit. When barred entrance to a well-to-do theater, the two sneak into its wardrobe-and-prop room and listen to the opera there. Tolkien and his friends sometimes insult each other—at times jokingly, at times not. There’s a reference to constipation. Tolkien and his mates apparently break into and “steal” an unused bus.

Conclusion

I wonder what the real J.R.R. Tolkien would’ve thought of this movie. While director Dome Karukoski expressed hope in an interview that, one day, he can sit on a cloud with the author and talk about it, Tolkien was notoriously adverse to people using lenses outside a given story to view said story. He never liked it when his friend C.S. Lewis used obvious allegory in his own fantasy series (The Chronicles of Narnia), and he was discomfited by efforts to interpret his own books as analogous to, say, the horrors of World War II or fascism or industrialism. He thought the story should always stand on its own.

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence,” he wrote in a forward to The Fellowship of the Ring. “I much prefer history—true or feigned—with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

Still, as a Tolkien fan, it’s interesting to see where Tolkien might’ve drawn inspiration for his stories: The bucolic green hills of Sarehole Mill become the Shire, his school friends as the first manifestation of a do-or-die Fellowship, the horrors of the Somme echoing the bleached, barren lands of Mordor.

Tolkien is a fine, watchable biopic that, content-wise, strays from the straight-and-narrow at times but not too badly. But watching the movie, I longed a bit for what it could’ve been. It could’ve delved into Tolkien’s faith more adroitly and earnestly. It could’ve spent more time with Tolkien’s relationships beyond Edith, especially with Father Francis. In its speculation about how Tolkien’s Middle-earth might’ve sprung from his own personal history, Tolkien neglects, I think, the most compelling parts of that history. In examining Tolkien’s seminal stories, this movie neglected Tolkien’s own.

And maybe that was Tolkien’s point.

If you would like to help your children embrace and grow in their faith, check out these Focus on the Family Resources:

Your Child’s Spiritual Development

7 Ways Your Kids Can Connect With God

Questions About Christian Fantasy/Fiction

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Nicholas Hoult as J.R.R. Tolkien; Harry Gilby as the young J.R.R. Tolkien; Lily Collins as Edith Bratt; Colm Meaney as Father Francis Morgan; Derek Jacobi as Prof. Joseph Wright; Anthony Boyle as Geoffrey Bache Smith; Adam Bregman as young Geoffrey Smith; Patrick Gibson as Robert Q. Gilson; Albie Marber as young Robert Q. Gilson; Tom Glynn-Carney as Christopher Wiseman; Ty Tennant as young Christopher Wiseman; Mimi Keene as young Edith Bratt; Craig Roberts as Sam; Pam Ferris as Mrs. Faulkner; Laura Donnelly as Mabel Tolkien

Director

Dome Karukoski ( )

Distributor

Fox Searchlight

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

May 10, 2019

On Video

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

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Teens
Adults
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