Release Date(s)2019 (August 6, 2019)
Studio(s)Fox Searchlight/Chernin Entertainment (Fox/Walt Disney Studios)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C+
Born in South Africa but raised in England with his younger brother in a boarding house after the death of their parents, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) nurtures his love of language at King Edward’s School, and later Oxford, where he also makes three friends—Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith, and Christopher Wiseman—who will shape his life in profound ways. While at this board house, he also meets the woman who will one day become his wife, Edith Mary Bratt (Lily Collins). She too, along with his friends and his experiences in France during the First World War—will inspire Tolkien’s greatest works of fantasy, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and The Lord of the Rings.
As a biography, director Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien reaches for the same heights as James March’s recent biopic on Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything, but doesn’t quite reach them. The film has its charms to be sure and the cast is quite good, not just the leads but also the actors who play Tolkien’s childhood friends, both as teenagers and later as young men. There are also brief turns by Derek Jacobi (as an Oxford professor who sees Tolkien’s talent) and Colm Meaney (as Catholic priest who becomes a father figure for him). But it never quite achieves liftoff. The revelations about Tolkien’s life seem obvious; one can’t help feeling that there’s another layer of depth and complexity to the man that’s missing here. Fans of the author will find it enjoyable, but if you’re looking for a filling meal, there are better documentaries about him.
The Blu-ray presents the film in a good 1080p HD presentation offered at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Detail and texturing are nice, revealing the film’s lovely production design and costuming well. Colors are rich and accurate, though a little desaturated by design in the WWI battlefield scenes. Contrast is good, with deep, detailed shadows and nice blacks.
The disc includes a solid English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that’s far from flashy but serves the film well. Low end is firm, staging is medium wide, and dialogue is clean and clear. The surrounds offer good atmosphere and a bit of directionality and movement in the battle scenes. The score by Thomas Newman is fairly traditional (and right in his wheelhouse), but there are a couple of moments that achieve a bit of lift. The disc also includes English 5.1 Descriptive Audio, as well as 5.1 Dolby Digital in Spanish and French. Subtitles are available in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Spanish, and French. There are subtitles for the audio commentary in those languages too.
Extras on the Blu-ray include (in 1080p HD):
- Audio Commentary with director Dome Karukoski
- HBO First Look (12:59)
- Deleted Scenes (7 scenes – 12:37 in all – with optional director’s commentary)
- Gallery (19 images – 1:30 in all)
The extras are fairly typical, though the audio commentary is somewhat revealing. Karukoski seems so concerned with the idea of flow, and of taking too much poetic license with Tolkien’s story, that he’s trimmed all of the poetry out of the film. Case in point, the deleted scenes include genuinely charming or surprising moments—material that’s trying to get at the heart of the complexity that drove the man—and you can’t help feeling that the film would have been better served by keeping a few of them. Note that the package also includes a DVD copy and a Movies Anywhere Digital copy code on a paper insert.
In the end, Tolkien lacks the one thing that the author didn’t—a rich sense of passion and imagination. The filmmakers, in attempting to craft a trafitional story that would appeal to a mass audience, have watered down their subject to the point of almost making him seem detached, even milquetoast. And that’s too bad because they’ve let down a fine cast. To be clear, Tolkien is not a bad film, yet it seldom rises beyond average. It is worth seeing, but keep your expectations in check.
- Bill Hunt