There are moments of elf magic in “Tolkien,” when this stodgy biographical drama of the author J.R.R. Tolkien seems about to burst free of its genre limitations to become as soaring as Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” — until it seems to lose its nerve.
Screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford shift between two threads of Tolkien’s narrative. One is during World War I, when Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) is a young army officer battling illness as well as the Germans. The other begins in Tolkien’s childhood, when a young Ronald, as he’s called (and played by Harry Gilby), and his brother Hilary (Guillermo Bedward) deal with the death of their mother (Laura Donnelly). Their priest, Father Francis (Colm Meaney), sends them to live with a wealthy widow, Mrs. Faulker (Pam Ferris), who takes in orphans.
Young Tolkien is sent to a prestigious school, where he eventually finds three friends: Robert Gilson (played first by Alice Marber, then by Patrick Gibson), Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant, then Tom Glynn-Carney) and Geoffrey Smith (Adam Bregman, then Anthony Boyle). The four swear an oath to look out for each other, and support each other through their artistic pursuits.
The friendship carries them through their school days, college — Gilson and Wiseman at Cambridge, Tolkien and Smith at Oxford — and into World War I. But Tolkien’s college days are nearly cut short before they begin, as he’s distracted from his studies by another orphan in Mrs. Faulkner’s house. She is Edith Bratt, played as a girl by Mimi Keene but as a young woman by Lily Collins. Edith’s love of opera is what sparks Tolkien’s interest in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, one of the inspirations of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
Director Dome Karukoski’s 2017 biopic “Tom of Finland” covered many of the same tropes of biographical drama as “Tolkien” does, particularly in showing a life event in terms of the symbolism of what the person later created. In “Tom of Finland,” it was when Tom watched a biker and essentially created gay leather fetishism. In “Tolkien,” it’s in how Ronald’s friends inspired the fellowship that propelled his epic adventure, or in how the horrors of The Somme informed Tolkien’s examination of war.
Hoult and Collins match up well as the self-doubting writer and the woman who challenged him to dig deeper. If “Tolkien” were more about their relationship, and less trying to make Tolkien’s life look too much like his creations, the movie might have been truly precious rather than just a story with a familiar ring to it.
Opens Friday, May 10, at area theaters nationwide. Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence. Running time: 112 minutes.