One of the nice things about finishing and releasing my big Tolkien book, at last, is that I’ve been able to watch the recent ‘young Tolkien’ biopic film in its extended form (i.e. complete with 12 minutes of deleted scenes on the DVD version). I hadn’t wanted to watch Tolkien (2019) before now, due to the risk of skewing my book.
Here are some notes…
Too much: The main problem is there’s just too much. This must go back to the two-hander script, which also jumps around in time while it tries to pack everything in. Possibly the writers were hoping for a six-part six-hour TV series? Even with over two hours on screen, including the deleted scenes, at times it’s like a fast roller-coaster ride. Yet The Atlantic review called it “molasses-slow”, and The Observer “a slog”. They must have been watching a different film. It’s often too quick, especially in the breakneck first third.
Locations: Industrial Birmingham barely features as-Birmingham except for some blink-and-you-miss-’em Industrial Museum type establishing shots. I can see why these were very brief, as they fail to convince. There’s no indication that the ten year-old Tolkien walked for miles through this every day. Neither the Oratory or its Retreat in the Lickeys feature. Nor the Great Hall at Birmingham University, which served as a hospital ward and which was where Tolkien was first brought to after France. Staffordshire is totally cut out. I don’t recall hearing a single Birmingham accent, though among the deleted scenes fluent Welsh has one short but magnificent outing. No coastal holidays, no Aunt Jane or other relatives. Oxford seems to whizz by, though there are several longer scenes including one featuring the Earendel lines. But the impression I was left with was that, one moment he’s a fresher and hijacking a town bus (true, he did, though here he doesn’t actually drive it). Then “whooosh” (three years pass), war is being declared and they’re off to the front without any training.
Edith: Edith is not the blue-stocking Suffragist intellectual I recall reading about in some reviews from 2019, just an intelligent but repressed person who loves music and yearns to talk about it. A trained musician and teacher, you can see how she would have brought some of her ideas about music (pretty sound vs. emotional meaning) to the table. In this case literally the table, as the couple discuss words and meanings in a key scene at a nice restaurant. There’s no wedding, that I could discern, presumably because that would entail a “become a Catholic” scene. His circle of TCBS friends didn’t actually know about her, though they do here.
Religion: The reviews were right, in that all the religion was cut. It is touched on in two of the deleted scenes, but those show Catholicism in a negative light. 30 seconds of dreary and slightly creepy back-room wafer-giving to boys, rather than a luminous church interior and joyous singing. And in the other scene Father Morgan slights Edith as ‘not a Catholic’, as part of the reason for forbidding the relationship. Which he probably did, but here it’s made to seem casually bigoted. It’s also made to seem as if the church was paying for everything including the school education fees for Tolkien, but in fact a kind uncle was paying the fees.
Language: Yes, this is a film that thinks about historical and invented language, and manages to put it on screen without being dry as a chalk-board. Quite an achievement. We get to hear a fine range of old languages, lovingly delivered by superb actors. Again, not something you hear on the big screen every day. Modern slang and profanity are absent, “bloody, “sod” and “ass” (silly person) are about as exclamatory as it gets.
Acting and accents: The acting and sense of chemistry/bonding is excellent, though two accents are a little off. Edith is too obviously a modern 2010s girl in her speech, though her acting is superb. Derek Jacobi, great actor though he is, only offers a wobbly quarter-accent as Joseph Wright rather than a full rolling burr. I guess the funders did not want the American audience to be scratching their heads at strong regional accents. Though Wright’s parting line ‘Write me 5,000 words on the Norse elements in Gawain… by this-evening!’ is a delight whatever the accent.
Sets and costuming: Fine, over-lavish even. This is most noticeable in places such as the interior of Barrow’s Tea-rooms. Which almost looks like it’s a recherche salon in Paris. The game of rugby looks like the school rugby of the time, not the Scrum of the Incredible Hulks on Steroids that it is today. The library interiors convince.
Historical discrepancies: Yes, quite a few. Others have detailed them. I can add that recognisable ents start appearing in sketchbooks far too early. Oxford girls would not be allowed to fraternise at night with undergraduates, especially where excessive drunkenness was involved, without a chaperone or two.
CG: Other reviewers felt jarred by the appearance of dragons and phantom warrior figures on the battlefield. I was fine with it. It’s brief, it works in the context of gas and fever-hallucinations. It also works historically (‘Angel of Mons’). Less welcome was some frequent and frequently clunky battlefield visual source-symbolism (e.g. pools shaped as Eye-of-Sauron etc).
Tolkien Estate: Apparently they banned all use of character names and any quotes from the published work or letters. The film-makers appear to have got around this quite nicely. We get “The Battle of Maldon”, Chaucer, the Exeter Book and others instead. Superb. Possibly some Beowulf as well, if that was what Wright was seen lecturing about in Old English for 15 seconds. The use of G.B. Smith’s last “say the things” letter was perfect.
Deleted scenes: Quite why they cut the scene where Father Morgan forbids Tolkien from seeing Edith, I can’t imagine. It would more firmly re-introduce the idea that his mother became a Catholic before she died, and that this had a lifelong influence on Tolkien. It must have made for a bit of a gap in the movie at the cinemas in 2019, as the conversion is a rather unexplained aspect of the opening that’s easy to forget by the time you’re 40 minutes in. Possibly part of the difficulties with the final film may lie with their exhaustive audience-testing of each scene, instead of the director and editor trusting their artistic judgement. ‘Too many cooks spoilt the broth’. I guess that may have been a funding requirement, though. Apparently there was a “scene where he attends communion and helps Father Francis” but I don’t recall seeing that, even in the deleted scenes. Unless it’s perhaps meant to be the gloomy 30-second scene of back-room wafer-giving?
All in all it’s not bad, not good. Though very good in parts, and it does keep the tone consistently high. But it still feels to me like it’s trying to do way too much and it needs a radical re-cut. In there somewhere might be a fine trimmed-down and perhaps even chronological film, possibly slowed by being divided by slightly extended 20-second inter-titles (1900 | Worcester | Birmingham | School | Somme River | 1933 etc) with pacing music and voice-overs.
As it is, as a double-bill it would probably work nicely if followed by Chariots of Fire.