Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Film Review No. 48 Tolkien (12+)

Strong Points:
Great, confident acting from the cast, young and old
Confidence in the audience to have references to Tolkien’s work in the background to find as well as in the foreground
Great cinematography
Nice production design
Focussed on different areas of Tolkien’s life than you might expect
Good, subtle but apparent score
The right amount of fantasy

Weak Points:
The opening ‘montage’/set up didn’t engross me
Slightly ‘by the numbers’
A lot of information was passed on all at once
Pacing issues

Note: as I only have a passing knowledge of Tolkien’s life, I won’t be commenting on any potential historical inaccuracies (I’ll leave that for the comments). However, remember this isn’t a documentary, it’s a dramatic biopic and should be treated as such.

Some spoilers ahead:

In-depth Review:

Tolkien wasn't really what I expected. A biopic of one of the greatest writers which doesn't really focus on his writing? Sure. A mix of pre-war, WW1 and post-war, set slightly non-chronologically to give significance to certain scenes? Why not. No elves in sight? Well, I sort of expected that. Oddly enough though, these areas of Tolkien's life were almost as engrossing as the fantasy realms he created, as long as you push through the opening 20 minutes.

The opening had a tough time with having to push out a lot of information at once. They chose to do it via quick, semi-silent scenes (think the opening of Pixar's UP), outlining how Tolkien ended up in the care of Mrs Faulkner. Unlike UP, however, I didn't feel particularly immersed in the story and the struggles of the family, instead, feeling rather detached from the whole proceedings until the film settled down slightly later on. This may have been due to pacing (the film settles on some parts of the story for slightly too long and rushes past others) or may have been due to it simply not working as well with live-action and without all the visual and creative ingenuity animation provides.

The actors, both old and young, did a very good job with this film I felt. From the four young actors comprising the T.C.B.S to Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins, everyone played their parts with conviction and energy. Subtle notes to character traits which weren't necessarily touched upon in the story were given by simple looks to other characters and you could feel the pain of post-war Tolkien in the tearoom scene. A small nod also needs to be made to the casting team, as the characters grew up naturally and it was easy to figure out who was who without the names being thrown at your ears.

I wasn't expecting a full-on war scene to be completely honest. It was quite haunting, with some excellent production design decisions - resting in the pool of mud and blood with the bodies all around was certainly a shot and a half. Now, I won't be mentioning the consequences of the war here, as it is a spoiler, but I'm sure you can work out, not a lot of good came of it.

It's difficult talking about the pacing and story content of a biopic - surely what their life was like is what you have to work with? However, there are many, many ways to present this information in a creative way and sadly Tolkien settles for a rather traditional storytelling structure. We had the classic story beats of relationships versus learning, the war's abrupt entrance, our protagonist being in a situation to show his special talents quickly and effectively... Even when the film tries to change itself up slightly, removing character connections or using the war flashbacks as a way to tell its story, it quite quickly returns to the similarity of other biopics. Now, this wasn't exactly a problem for me - I'm not quite saturated with biopics yet - but it is something to take note of. Now, onto some more positives.

One of Tolkien's greatest strengths is the way it goes about referencing the eponymous' writers' books in the film. A reflection in an eye, a cloud changing and darkening and shadow on the wall, all act as small references to TLOTRs, without lingering and forcing each audience member to acknowledge the reference. Of course, there are some larger, more transparent nods to the books, with the Balrog/Sauron appearing in the war scene as a prime example. But the confidence in the audience to notice and appreciate small details is a really admirable choice, especially in an age of spoon-feeding.

Visually, I loved this film. It uses CGI sparingly and subtlety to tell its story and some of the wide shots, especially in the war scenes, are glorious to behold. Yes, the visuals, like the story, are a bit 'by the numbers' - what you expect to see in Oxford or the trenches is what you do see, but the simple quality of the shots is more than enough to keep watching. While maybe not a feast for the eyes like the works of Blade Runner or Barry Lyndon, couple the cinematography and production design with the aforementioned subtle references to TLOTR's, you've got at least a decent meal. The score also complemented the epic feel nicely, although I'm one of the people who like it when you notice the score on its own, so it depends on how you like your music blended.

Conclusion: no matter if you speak Sindarin or thought it was a type of infection, know every word of the Ring Verse or only have a passing interest in fantasy, Tolkien should leave you with one thought - what a waste war creates.

Rating: 76%

Thanks for reading, Satamer.

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