Literary biopics are always a dicey proposition. Even if you adore the subject’s words on the page, it can be an uphill climb to make the act of sitting at a typewriter riveting cinema. Still, Finnish director Dome Karukoski’s dramatization of the early years of Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien has one big advantage — the readers who love his furry-footed mythology are more than mere fans. They’re obsessives.
At turns poignant and a bit too polite, the origin story stars Nicholas Hoult as the impoverished and introspective British academic with a gift for languages (both real and invented) who channeled the traumas of World War I and the deaths of his mother and Oxbridge chums into the inspiration for his Middle-earth masterpiece.
Hoult brings a quiet, romantic intensity to the young Tolkien (pronounced ‘Tolkeen’, who knew?), Lily Collins does a lot with a little as his first love Edith, and the Hobbit horde will gobble up all of the easter-egg references peppered throughout the movie. But Karukoski occasionally tries too hard to juice up his fustier Dead Poets Society-esque stretches with fevered battlefield visions of German flamethrowers transforming into fire-breathing dragons. Tolkien was never what anyone would call a subtle writer, but even he’d probably find those CGI flourishes a bit too much. B