Tolkien (3 stars)


Cosy biopic of the Lord of the Rings author, starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins

Directed by Dome Karukoski (who made Tom of Finland), this British biopic of fantasy author JRR Tolkien takes a traditional, by-the-numbers approach (an 'Expected Journey', if you will) – yet succeeds well enough on its own terms, thanks to a likeable cast.

After being orphaned and forced to leave his beloved countryside, young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Harry Gilby, then Nicholas Hoult) moves to Birmingham, where he grows up in care with his younger brother, Hilary. From that point, Karukoski effectively cuts between three stories: Tolkien's romance with Edith Bratt (Mimi Keene, then Lily Collins), a fellow resident of his care home; his academic career, first at a prestigious Birmingham school, where he forms an artistic club with his three best friends, and later at Oxford; and his traumatic experiences in the trenches of WWI, where his faithful lieutenant (Craig Roberts) just so happens to be called Sam.

As that connection suggests, the film takes an extremely on-the-nose approach when it comes to events in Tolkien's life foreshadowing his art. It may be clumsy in places (the 'fellowship' theme is particularly overused), but it does allow for some impressive visuals, most notably when the trenches are attacked with terrifying, dragon-breath-like flame-throwers. Hoult cuts a charismatic, thoughtful figure in the lead and Collins is extremely charming as Edith – there's a touching chemistry between them that works well. There's also strong support from Anthony Boyle as the most sensitive of Tolkien's friends and a predictably eccentric turn from Derek Jacobi as the esteemed Oxford professor who recognises Tolkien's genius with language.

As biopics go, Tolkien paints a convincing portrait of the future author's background and formative experiences. And yet you can't help wishing the film had taken a slightly less cosy approach, particularly in its 'family friendly' combat sequences, where the worst thing our protagonist sees is a tastefully arranged corpse.

General release from Fri 3 May.


  • 3 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 1h 52min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Dome Karukoski
  • Cast: Lily Collins, Nicholas Hoult, Genevieve O'Reilly

Young J.R.R. Tolkien (Gilby, then Hoult) romances Edith Bratt (Keene, then Collins), forms friendships and then fights in the trenches of WWI. Hoult is charismatic as the lead and Collins is charming as Edith, and it’s a convincing enough portrait, but it’s a bit too cosy and traditional, especially the family-friendly…