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Tolkien review: Poignant Lord of the Rings biopic goes from WWI to the Shire

Biopic starring Nicolas Hoult and Lily Collins rings true for a generation lost to war.

It's pronounced Tol-keen, apparently.

Even if you're enough of a Lord of the Rings fan to already know that -- or even if you're not a fantasy fan at all -- this new movie about the life of JRR Tolkien is still a poignant tale of fellowship and a reminder of the humanity and creativity lost to war.

Tolkien's is available on home release in the US now. In the UK it's available as a digital download on August 26 and Blu-ray and DVD on September 9.

Mad Max and X-Men actor Nicholas Hoult stars as the legendary author, born in South Africa, orphaned in England and instilled with a love of language at Oxford. The story of Tolkien's life and love for his wife Edith, played by Lily Collins, is framed in flashbacks from the mud-clogged trenches of the First World War where Tolkien served as an officer.


Nicholas Hoult as JRR Tolkien.


Directed by Dome Karukoski, the biopic illustrates various influences upon The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These include the epic myths read to young JRR Tolkien by his late mother; Wagner's Ring Cycle opera; and his transition from idyllic rural English shires to the hellish chimney towers of industrial Birmingham. The film is then tied together by Tolkien's feverish hallucinations of fiery dragons and nightmarish knight-monsters stalking the gas-shrouded, flame-engulfed hellscape of the Western Front.

Some of these mirrorings are a bit dead-on: For example, Craig Roberts has a thankless task as a faithful companion named Sam, spurring Tolkien on an arduous quest through the trenches.

Ultimately though the Lord of the Rings allusions are just the hook. Fans will enjoy spotting the references and inspirations to the Middle-earth books, but the real story is about a generation scythed down by war. At the upscale school where he feels like an outsider, Tolkien falls in with a group of artistic dreamers who find themselves in uniform while still only boys. Already confined by the strictures of society, they find themselves fighting for their lives during World War I.


Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins face the nightmare of the First World War.


Tolkien symbolizes the artists, poets and painters, the creative, playful and gentle souls lost to war even if they made it home. The film presents Tolkien as a survivor who speaks for a generation of artists lost to history.

While it is a heartfelt meditation on loss and linguistics, Tolkien's actual life story is fairly slight -- especially if you're not keen on posh boys palling around posh schools. But there are gently affecting moments, like Edith pushing Tolkien beyond linguistics and into emotion by inventing a story on the spot. There's also a heady cameo from Derek Jacobi, who delivers a stirring speech on the power of words.

But one does not simply make a biopic without bending the truth a little. The Tolkien family has disavowed the film, and there are inevitably some deviations from the truth. The film implies Tolkien and his friends went straight to war, for example, although in reality he delayed joining up long enough to raise eyebrows. And it feels like the film may be playing coy with some aspects of Tolkien's story. Director Dome Karukoski has made a couple of films based on true stories, and speaking to CNET he admitted biopics are "always a battle between fact and fiction." But even if the facts are streamlined or adjusted, it's only to find the "emotional truth" of the story.

JRR Tolkien himself also resisted attempts to analyze the influences on his work. But Lord of the Rings remains as influential as ever, with Peter Jackson's epic movie series soon to be followed by a new TV version on Amazon. And of course Tolkien's influence is seen throughout the fantasy genre from the Narnia stories of his contemporary CS Lewis to the phenomenon of George RR Martin's Game of Thrones.

Not just for Lord of the Rings fans, Tolkien explores how the war to end all wars inspired the one ring to rule all fantasy. And by taking Tolkien as a representative of a doomed generation, it reminds us of the tragedy that some things which should not have been forgotten were lost.

Originally published May 7.