Monday, 6 May 2019

Tolkien (the movie) - 2019

The new Tolkien 'biopic' movie was rather frustrating. The first half was extremely good; not least in its ambition - there was a real attempt to make the movie about friendship, language, Tolkien's love of Edith and other similarly important things. This was done in a highly creative way, resulting in a film unlike any other I have seen.

The whole atmosphere and style was original and enjoyable; and some of the scenes - especially of the school and the boys' 'club' were really delightful. The plot was only loosely based on reality, but the spirit was really quite authentic.

The makers even manged to illustrate Tolkien's particular way of making and exploring languages in a highly effective and enjoyable fashion.

So the 'set-up' was very good, and I was beginning to hope that this might be a first rate movie.

But in the second part of the movie, it pretty much fell to pieces - notably in a fantasy nightmare Battle of the Somme sequence which was implausible, boring and embarrassing.

But in general, the narrative lost its grip, the plot strayed further and further from reality (including what all Tolkien lovers had been dreading - the obligatory false-fabricated homosexual intrusion; albeit mercifully understated and brief). The ending looked very anachronistic, felt perfunctory and was unsatisfying.

Overall, Tolkien (the movie) was worth watching, and there is plenty of evidence that it was an ambitious and sincere attempt at producing a story loosely-based on Tolkien's early life and most passionate motivations. But it is easier to begin well than to end gratifyingly; and this movie began well and then fizzled-out.

Note: The definitive account of Tolkien's early life in the period covered by the biopic, is Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth - which is undoubtedly one of the very best books ever written about Tolkien.


dearieme said...

"anachronistic" seems to be a standard feature of the few TV dramas I see in two ways: confusing the past with the present, and confusing different periods in the past with each other. It's as if the directors and scriptwriters have the intellectual maturity of six year olds - "Daddy, in olden times did ....?"

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - The anachronistic bit that got me was when Tolkien and his family were walking through some woods, his wife was wearing a fitted leather jacket and trousers (wrong at so many levels, e.g. she was supposed to be aged in her mid forties). This was supposed to be the 1930s (just as the Hobbit was being written) but confused me so much that I thought we were being shown a fantasy sequence with the same actors playing Tolkien's son's family... or something.

Anonymous said...

Uh, oh! I was trying to wangle getting to review it, somewhere (without success) - but this leaves me wondering if I even want to see it.

Does John Garth get any credit? For, presumably his 'homework' must have given them very much of their material indeed (whatever they then did with it)... though one may hope in any case people may discover it, on trying to 'follow up', which would conceivably be far and away the best thing about the movie.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - The movie is mostly invented or distorted - some names and places are there, but all is greatly changed. One simply has to set-aside the massive liberties being taken.

However, at first there was a real sense of being focused on Tolkienian themes - in a way that I haven't seen even attempted in another movie. It wasn't senationalised and there was some lovely, inspiring stuff. I really was entranced and swept along for about an hour.

But then - probably starting with a (made-up, but with a slight basis in fact) episode about Tolkien being threatened with being sent down, getting drunk, screaming in the quad etc; it started being not just false, but false to the spirit - and also incoherent. Therefore just dull and irritating.

So many movies have this trajectory - I suppose it is because (for nearly 100 years) modernism dictates that the narrative imperatives be ignored; 'creativity' is supposed to be about violating narrative expectations. So that highbrow movies set up mythic expectations then attempt to twist them somewhere unexpected; or else try to 'use' the audiences interest and attention (derived from archetypal themes) to 'make a point' about something social/ political/ topical... but simply leads to something incoherent, dull and unsatisfying.

I didn't notice John Garth being credited although his book 'must have' been used in preparation. I don't think the movie drew upon that level of detail about the real TCBS - the 'facts' in the movie really were merely skeletal.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your lucid and pleasantly positive review! I have noticed a lot of specialists have tended to give the film a rather cool response, which I can understand but also find a bit of a shame: after reading John Garth's excellent book, I certainly would never thought we would get to see a film about the glorious TCBS, and it still stands out as a beautiful homage to friendship and the lost generation (not to mention, as I recall, a rather nice soundtrack by Thomas Newman which is far from "run of the mill" cinema fare, and gives the film its own soundscape and feel). However, what with the sometimes unsubtle approach to Tolkien's language creation processes (notably the coaching he gets from Edith...), I would like to see what Dimitra Fimi had to say over at the TLS, but I'm afraid I haven't got access to that particular periodical!
Apart from all that, I was wondering whether I might have your opinion concerning the gratuitous insertion of a homoromantic subtext (thankfully understated, and still of an idealistic and lofty kind) in the feelings of G. B. Smith towards Tolkien. I understand the screenwriter is a homosexual, and, predictably enough, after reading a few letters, felt G.B.S. must have been too (a supposition which requires no further comment).
Victor C.

Bruce Charlton said...

@VC - It is one of the nastier aspects of this reductionist age of materialism that friendship has been abolished and replaced by sexual attraction (whether open or 'repressed') - here is an example; particularly ironic in what is otherwise a celebration of friendship.