Where Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody each used fantasy as a way to tell their realities, Tolkien went the other route: it uses reality to tell the fantasy. Well, about the fantasy, at any rate. The movie is a bit of a confused mess, but it does eventually come together to its point.
Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite) is really quite good at negotiating both the complex emotional challenge and the age challenge of his role as the story unfolds. Lily Collins (Okja), likewise, gets to work a lot of levels, not all of which are comfortable. The rest of the cast is servicable, with folks like Derek Jacobi (Tomb Raider) and Patrick Gibson (The Darkest Minds) probably standing out the most. But, frankly, no one really matters outside the main couple.
The main challenge with this film is that it isn’t very focused. It jumps back and forth in time attempting to show the connections in Tolkien’s life that led him to author his stories. But the narrative is a little forced as we follow him through the trenches while his febrile brain keeps triggering memories. It wasn’t sustainable for the whole movie, so the approach ends about two thirds of the way through. A more chronological telling may have been more effective for the majority of the story; or, perhaps, a more complete commitment to the flashback. The mix and unbalance of the two leaves the rhythm of the film uneven and confused.
Director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) certainly took care with his portrayal. And writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford (Pride) were likewise sympathetic. It doesn’t feel like a real biography or look at the man, but rather an homage to him and the work he left behind. And perhaps that is the better way to view the movie: as a biography of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring rather than of Tolkien himself. On that level it succeeds quite a bit more than as an historical recounting.