click to enlarge Nicholas Hoult in Tolkien

Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Nicholas Hoult in Tolkien

A legendary storyteller gets a lousy story in 'Tolkien' 

Not so precious

The hero of Tolkien is the legendary British writer J.R.R. Tolkien (played by Nicholas Hoult), so storytelling figures significantly in this flawed but gracious biopic. The most lively narrative, though, doesn't belong solely to the title character, but also to the fellowship of friends he makes along the way.

As it happens, the famed author, whose tales made the unimaginable imaginable, is no more than your typical Englishman. He hangs with the chaps, drinks tea and reads Chaucer. (He's a rather boring character with whom to spend a couple of hours.) And the only things inviting about him are his ocean-blue eyes and conspicuously straight teeth – even more conspicuous when you consider he's from England.

Unfortunately, the surprises end there. Don't expect orcs, dragons or plot twists: This informative journey through Tolkien's formative years is more concerned with his time nose-deep in studies at Oxford, as well as his time balls-deep in the mucky trenches of World War I. Still, director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) gets his cues not from real life but from film clichés.

There's a laughable irony to the film. It preaches imagination the way a fundamentalist preaches the Ten Commandments, yet exhibits so little of it. For one thing, it looks and sounds like every other literary biopic. A hugely talented and endearingly determined writer must overcome a troubled past and an uneven present. But what's this? A beautiful gal has come to the rescue! Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) is an intelligent, thoughtful and continuously supportive lover who presents the only ring that matters to a young Tolkien. You can't blame him. I too was lost in Collins' luscious locks and floral dresses.

What you won't find yourself lost in is this movie. Which is odd, given that it comes by its period detail with elegance. Tolkien's adventures through the sunny countryside, talking art with his pals (who seem straight out of Dead Poets Society) should be entertaining. Whereas scenes in the trenches, where shrapnel takes to the sky like a flock of birds, should be explosive. They're not.

The trouble with Tolkien is Tolkien himself. Or rather, Karukoski's dramatization of Tolkien, since his feature fails in making a case for the subject's ponderous talent. We are surely told of his wit, insight and command of the English language, all of which can be found in Hoult's performance. What's missing in the script, though, are those same attributes. It's hard to imagine this young man growing into the author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit when all of his dialogue sounds as if it were plucked out of the pretentious Downton Abbey. (Some of the terminology is so old you might think to fumigate it.)

Still, fans will be delighted to see the birth of a new dialect – you know, the one from Lord of the Rings. If only the rest of the enterprise spoke our language.

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