Director: Dome Karukoski
When I watched James Kent’s ‘Testament of Youth’, an account of how the First World War ripped out the heart of an entire generation I couldn’t stop crying. Is was not just the wasted lives of those beautiful young people but also the horrendous way those boys died and the debilitating damage carried by those who came back. They were so heroic and innocent, involved in a war that was neither heroic nor worthy of even just one of their lives.
The biopic of J R R Tolkien focuses on the formative years of the precocious author, from when he became fatherless and moved from an idyllic rural life with his mother and younger brother to Birmingham, through the death of his mother, his scholarship to school (where he met his closest friends), to university, and finally to the war that stole the joy from their lives. The writing of ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in Karukoski’s film is in part depicted as a therapeutic way Tolkien honours those friends of his youth whose lives were lost to war.
Each war scene in ‘Tolkien’ is a psychodrama – burning mud and blood filled wastelands of stench and rotting bodies where an hallucinating Tolkien glimpses dragons and Black Riders and the mists of Middle-earth (mustard gas) drifting through the besieged trenches and towards doomed men.
By contrast, a pre-war discussion of trees by the student Tolkien and his philologist professor is a joy and hints at Tolkien’s love of language. The two bookish men – one old and grey, and one on the verge of manhood – discuss the many and varied words for ‘tree’; as a living entity that gives shape and shade to generations, bears fruit, allows young creatures to clamber over it, hides first kisses and grow roots over last breaths. I couldn’t help but think of Tolkien’s magical ‘Ents’, those tree-like forest shepherds who had already outlasted generations of the inhabitants of Middle-earth, but who, on being moved to action by their deep and ancient care, were able to demolish Isengard – the stronghold of the evil wizard Saruman – when all others thought that hope was lost.
‘Tolkien’ will make you cry. Though ‘Tolkien’ does not capture the extraordinary imagination of a man who created an inter-generational (hobbit) universe complete with language, geography, culture and history, it does capture the horror of the First World War, and hints at the poetry of words that so enamoured the famous author and that never cease to shape our reality.