First Hit: Given the previews I watched, I liked the story and sections of this film far more than I thought I would.
In full disclosure, I’m not a fan of Tolkien’s writings. I didn’t like “The Hobbit,” and I did my best to sit through the Peter Jackson films based on his books.
However, given my previous view, I did like the story behind J. R. R. Tolkien’s (Harry Gilby as the young Tolkien and Nicholas Hoult as the elder) emergence as a person and writer of these stories.
I was pulled in by how he did his best to support his mother and brother before she died. How he was able to not be bitter in his becoming an orphan and living in a home with his brother and Edith Bratt (Mimi Keene as the young and Lily Collins as the elder) as guided by Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney).
Father Morgan (Colm Meaney) was given charge of Tolkien and his brother after their mother’s death. Father Morgan placed Tolkien and his brother at the home of Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris) and ensured them placement in a good school. Although they had no money and were placed in a school full of privileged students, through trials as shown in this movie, both boys found friends.
J. R. R. founded a group of four boys that met daily to discuss the ways of the world, share dreams of changing the world, and create dares to push each other to be leaders. These flashbacks made this film come alive with poignancy and adventure.
When watching J. R. R. slowly develop his relationship with Edith, I was totally captured. The strength emanating from Edith (both actresses did this extraordinary well) was perfect for J. R. R. Together they challenged each other, but it was her pointed darts at his mind, heart, and soul that brought out the best in him.
All of this was very well done. However, what didn’t work for me, and I’m not sure why, is that most of the past scenes of this life - before his becoming a professor, were based on his flashbacks while slogging through the trenches in WWI. The darkness, hopelessness, and drive within himself to find his friend put a damper on this film and story. It appeared to be the point of many of the war visuals is that they contributed to the visualizations Tolkien eventually used in his later stories of battles.
For me, it took away from the story in ways that hurt the overall film.
The highlights were Tolkien’s meeting with his friend’s mother and sharing where the young men use to meet and discuss the world while convincing her to publish his friend’s poems — a lovely moment. All the scenes Tolkien has with Edith were outstanding and influential. The group of young men committing their love of their friendship with each other was a beautiful scene. Tolkien’s interaction with Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) was both funny and quirky. And I enjoyed Father Morgan’s confession that he was wrong about Edith.
Harry Gilby as the young Tolkien and Nicholas Hoult as the older Tolkien were outstanding. How each portrayed the thoughtful, inquisitive, Tolkien was perfect. They made this man come alive. Mimi Keene as the young and Lily Collins as the elder Edith, for me, were the highlight of the film, acting-wise. The power behind her character showed through with elegant integrity. When they were on the screen, I was totally engaged. The moment she shares with Tolkien what her life is like, playing songs for the homeowner, I felt her struggle to live. That scene was perfect. Jacobi was terrific as the quirky professor of languages. Meaney was excellent as Father Morgan. He was both strong and contrite. David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford wrote the script. Although I didn’t like the drudgery in the trenches, the other scenes were wonderfully drawn, and the dialogue between Tolkien and Bratt were sublime. Dome Karukoski directed this film. Again, the only dislike for me was using the WWI segments as a place for him to reflect on his life.
Overall: I was clearly struck by the power of Tolkien and Bratt’s relationship as written and portrayed in this story.