2 Stars – Shallow
It takes skill to tell the biography of one of the greatest Christian writers in modern time without showing his devotion to or influence of his faith. Yet in “Tolkien,” director Dome Karukoski and writers David Gleesonand Stephen Beresforddo just that. A devout Catholic throughout his life who not only required his beloved Edith (Mimi Keene/Lily Collins) to convert to Catholicism but was also instrumental in helping C.S. Lewis leave his atheism to become a Christian, you would never know it from this shallow portrayal. His faith permeates everything he wrote including his best known “Lord of the Rings,” a story of the struggle between good and evil and the fellowship of warriors that is needed to defeat evil.
This biography covers J.R.R. Tolkien (Harry Gilby/Nicholas Hoult) from age 12 when his mother Mable (Laura Donnelly) died of diabetes and he was placed under the care of Father Francis (Colm Meaney) to be raised as a Catholic, through his education to become an Oxford professor and begin his writing. During this time there were three events that impacted him. The first was his falling in love with Edith while living under the care of the church in a boarding home. At first this love distracted him from his studies and he was required by Fr. Francis to not see her in order to get into Oxford. This struggle with love and obedience and later family and writing is formative in his life. It was also from her love for opera and for Richard Wagner’s opera that placed the idea of the ring of power in his imagination.
The second event was helping to create a fellowship of young men who wanted to change the world through their music, art, poetry and writing. The love, support and encouragement of Robert Gilson (Albie Marber/Patrick Gibson), Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant/Tom Glynn-Carney) and Geoffrey Smith (Adam Bregman/Anthony Boyle) brought Tolkien to a place of belonging. It is undoubtedly this early experience that caused him to join Lewis in a similar group of Oxford Professors called The Inklings.
The third event that helped form Tolkien was World War I. Enlisting as an officer and given the rank of second lieutenant, Tolkien experienced the overwhelming horrors of war that would later influence his writings. From the fire-breathing flame-throwers, to the wise and dedicated private assigned to him named Sam (Craig Roberts), to the red eyes of threatening smoke on the battlefield, to the horses that fought along with their riders, the fantasy Tolkien describes in his books about Middle-earth are not so much imaginary as adapted reality.
The power of Tolkien’s writing comes from a deep appreciation for human language and the human condition. As a man of deep faith one can only imagine the power of a film that would have opened our eyes to see the complete person. It would have been a great tribute to this remarkable man. As it is we have to let his own words in his writings tell us the true story.
- Tolkien and Lewis wrote their fantasy stories as mythological truth that will lead people to explore to true struggles between good and evil. Why do you think this creative team who wrote and directed this film left out Tolkien’s faith that undergirds his stories?
- The choice that Tolkien made to break off with Edith to focus on his studies continued when he began to break off his time with his family to do his scholarship. When he brought Edith and his own children into his work, he then flourished. How do you flourish in both your family and work lives?
- Our warring madness is only a symptom of the larger struggle between good and evil. How do you fight for what is right while not engaging in the madness of war?
Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara, and Denny Wayman is the former pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and the former lead superintendent of the Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, go to cinemainfocus.com. Cinema in Focus provides social and spiritual movie commentary.