(Release Info London schedule; May 3rd, 2019, Curzon Mayfair, 38 Curzon St, Mayfair, London W1J 7TY, United Kingdom, 1:15pm)
"Tolkien" explores the formative years of the renowned author’s life as he finds friendship, courage and inspiration among a fellow group of writers and artists at school. Their brotherhood strengthens as they grow up and weather love and loss together, including John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s (Nicholas Hoult) tumultuous courtship of his beloved Edith Ann Bratt (Lily Collins), until the outbreak of 'The First World War' which threatens to tear their fellowship apart. All of these experiences would later inspire Tolkien to write his famous 'Middle-Earth' novels.
In his formative time Tolkien was a student, young romantic and soldier, long before he published 'The Hobbit' in 1937. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3rd, 1892 in Bloemfontein, 'Orange Free State', South Africa to an English couple, banker Arthur Tolkien (Adam Darlington) and his wife Mabel (Jane Dixon-Rowland). When we first meet the young Tolkien (Jack Riley) in the film, he's three. He returns to England with his mother and younger brother Hilary (Guillermo Bedward) to visit family. Tragically, while they're gone, his father died of rheumatic fever in 'South Africa'. With no income of her own, Mabel and her boys are forced to live with her family in Birmingham. In 1896, Mabel, John Ronald and Hilary moved to the rural hamlet of 'Sarehole', a 'Milltown' near 'Worcestershire', in the pastoral fields of 'The West Midlands'. This area of tremendous natural beauty would later inspire 'The Hobbit’s Shire' and other villages in Tolkien’s writing. He also spent time at his Aunt Jane’s (Laura Donnelly) farm, 'Bag End', a name later used for the home of 'Bilbo Baggins'. Mabel home schooled John Ronald and Hilary, sharing her own love of languages, stories, plants and trees. Around 1901, Mabel moved the family to 'King’s Heath' in urban Birmingham, to a house adjacent to a railway. Tolkien soon becomes a scholarship student at 'King Edward’s School', a boy’s school founded by 'King Edward' in 1552 in 'Edgbaston', 'Birmingham'. In 1904, Mabel dies at the age of 36 from acute diabetes, two decades before insulin was invented.
At 12 years old, teenage Tolkien (Harry Gilby) is left without parents. Mabel’s close friend and religious adviser, Father Francis Morgan (Colin Meaning), is assigned the role of guardian to the two young Tolkien brothers and would oversee their finances and education until adulthood. In 1911, Tolkien forms 'The Tea Club And Barrovian Society' with fellow students and close friends Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle) and Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney). Named in honor of 'Barrow’s', the store close to their school where they enjoyed tea, cake, books and highbrow debate, the club became a haven for each of them to explore their aspirations. Everything changes when he forms the secret society with his fellow students, youthful artists, outcasts and rebels who together hope to change the world. In them he discovers steadfast friendships that will buoy him through the dark times of war and give him the confidence to try to follow the star-crossed lover he's forbidden to see and inspires him to write epics no one else could have conjured. Tolkien meets Edith Bratt at 16, when he and his brother began living at a boarding house where she also resided. Also an orphan, 19-year-old Edith studies to be a concert pianist. Tolkien and Edith begin falling in love, but when Father Morgan sees Tolkien’s schoolwork slipping, he prohibits them from seeing one another until Tolkien turns 21, leaving Tolkien heartbroken. In October of 1911, Tolkien begins his studies at 'Exeter College', Oxford. He initially studies 'Classics' but switched to 'English Language And Literature' in 1913.
On his 21st birthday, Tolkien writes to Edith and proposes, only to learn that she's already engaged, convinced she’d never hear from Tolkien again. In January of 1913, Tolkien and Edith meet at 'Cheltenham Station', where she agrees to marry him. In 1915, he graduates from 'Exeter' with first class honors. Tolkien enlists to serve in 'World War I' in 1915. He's posted to the trenches in June 1916 as part of 'The 74th Brigade, 25th Division' and finds himself in 'The Somme' in July of that year. After coming down with trench fever in the fall of 1916, he's evacuates back to England, where he later learns most of his battalion was completely wiped out in the ensuing battles. Two of Tolkien’s dear friends and 'TCBS members', Robert Gilson and Geoffrey Smith, were killed in the war. Following a long recovery and the birth of his first child with Edith, Tolkien takes his first civilian job working as an etymologist for 'The Oxford English Dictionary'. He then becomes the youngest professor ever hired by 'The University Of Leeds'. He returns to Oxford in 1925 as 'The Rawlinson And Bosworth Professor Of Anglo-Saxon'. In 1937, Tolkien publishes 'The Hobbit' to wide critical acclaim. In 1954 and 1955, he publishes the three volumes of 'The Lord Of The Rings', which would become one of the best-selling novels ever written, read by millions in nearly every language and an enduring influence on popular culture ever since. Tolkien and Edith have four children and their love endured for the rest of their lives. Edith died in 1971 at the age of 82. On her tombstone in 'Oxford Cemetery', Tolkien inscrites the name 'Lúthien', the name he gave the ravishing 'Elven' princess who sacrifices immortality for love in 'Middle-Earth'. Tolkien dies on September 2nd, 1973 at the age of 81. Inscribe on his tombstone under his name is 'Beren', the mortal for whom 'Lúthien' sacrificed so much.
Tolkien’s life begins far from the incomparable characters he forged in his famous novels. When the film opens with a feverish Tolkien roaming 'The Trenches Of The Somme' searching for a lost friend, you know right away this is not going to be a standard biopic. It starts in war but then it becomes the wonderful story of these beautiful friendships. "Tolkien" begins in a world of fire and ash so eerie, it could be straight out of a dark fantasy, but is in fact 'The French Battlefields Of 'World War I'. In the midst of the raging 'Battle Of The Somme', where so many promising young men will give their lives, Tolkien staggers through a maze of desolate, fog-shrouded trenches in a feverish haze, searching for a friend. It’s an apt starting point not only to dive into the film’s central theme of fellowship, but also because few events would have more impact on Tolkien than the unthinkably vast human destruction and personal losses of 'World War I'. The so-called 'Great War' is the world’s shattering introduction to industrial warfare, rife with many new kinds of explosive, rapid-fire and chemical weaponry capable of causing mass casualties the likes of which have never before been seen in history.
Some 10 million soldiers, including a staggering 700,000 British armed forces, would lose their lives in the war and Tolkien himself expressed doubts in his letters that he would survive to come home to Edith. Yet, even in the hellscape of 'The Trenches', Tolkien’s imagination is at work, as he begins writing notes by candlelight on some of the characters who would become the lifeblood of the legends he would create. Tolkien is always clear that the exact events of 'The Lord Of The Rings' saga, as written, are not meant to correlate to specific events in either world war. But his experiences in the first war, and the loss of his close friends, impacted him greatly. Death is so close to Tolkien in that time. Much as he loves the soaring legends of 'The Hobbit' and The Lord Of The Rings', he's equally moved by the deeply human story of how Tolkien comes of age against the odds, and how he's spurred to write lasting stories in part by a determination to live and create to the fullest. In those moments imagination often takes over and you see into the darker catacombs of your mind. Seeing evil and darkness is the emotion he takes from war. The realism of the environment also helps to evoke the urgency of Tolkien hoping against hope to reunite with his dear friends.
By pulling back the curtain on Tolkien’s early life, you find a story that delves into where art and stories come from. For Tolkien, friendship is one of the most important things in the world and here you see why that becomes so central to his life and works. By age 12, John and his brother Hilary are penniless orphans, but Tolkien defied those circumstances at every turn. It soon becomes clear he has exceptional gifts, including a rare genius for inventing languages, mapping out mythology and concocting imaginary creatures in words and drawings. That genius provided him with the opportunity to enroll in the prestigious 'King Edward’s School' in Birmingham, and where his blossoming fantasy life really began to soar, thanks to the very best kind of encouragement; a circle of faithful friends who kept daring him to go further and always had his back. In 1911, Tolkien joined up with Robert Gilson, Christopher Wiseman and Geoffrey Smith to create a secret club playfully dubbed 'The Tea Club And Barrovian Society', 'TCBS' for short, to trade barbs, share ideas, debate everything going in the world, unleash their inner poets and support one another in their exuberant aspiration to lead lives of courage, creativity and meaning. It's really revelatory to discover that Tolkien is part of this foursome of friends who really are a fellowship.
They all enlisted into 'The Great War' together, so you truly have this alliance of young men who've to confront tremendous peril, which is a theme that became so close to Tolkien’s heart. They're the kind of friends able to push each other and encourage each other to go further. And at that time, Tolkien didn’t have anyone else like that. It's about gaining the trust of each of these young men, and also encouraging them to trust each other. You've to really feel that they not only get to know each other on that level that only best friends do but that they believe in each other. Each armed with a sharp wit and a desire to make a mark on the world, 'The TCBS' will give each of these outcasts a place to express who they really are. These four young men make this bold declaration that they’re going to change the world through art, and that mark on him will last forever. From Tolkien’s arrival at 'King Edward’s School' to his near demise fighting for 'The British' in 'The Battle Of The Somme' during 'World War I', which remains one of the bloodiest conflicts in British military history, to the start of his life with Edith Bratt, who would become his hard-won muse,the film sharps his storytelling savvy as part of a clandestine society of teen misfits. Spanning from childhood dreams to a surreal vision of Tolkien at war, it also has an epic sensibility Tolkien himself might have recognized.
Even as Tolkien finds companionship, solidarity and adventure with 'The TCBS', he's also finding unexpected common ground with a resident at Mrs. Faulkner’s (Pam Ferris) boarding house, Edith Ann Bratt, a rising young talent studying to become a concert pianist. Three years older than Tolkien, at first, she's just an intriguing housemate. But in 1909, they fell in love, which led Tolkien on one of his first and greatest quests. It's almost a 'Shakespearean' love story between Tolkien and fellow orphan Edith Bratt. After a fiery courtship based on their mutual love of art and mischief, their link is nearly severed when Tolkien’s guardian, Father Francis Morgan, banned the love-struck pair from so much as making eye contact until Tolkien is 21. Father Francis Morgan decides Edith is spinning Tolkien’s head away from his schoolwork, he banns them from dating. Things might well have ended there, but Tolkien refused to let go of his dream. Here's a tremendous romance between two lost souls who are torn apart just when they really needed each other, only to find each other again and make it work. Tolkien and Edith has such a deep love and a connection that it could never be broken. They're each other’s escape but also each other’s reality.
The charismatic showman of 'The TCBS' is Robert Gilson, who aspires to become a painter. Gilson also happens to be the son of the school headmaster, which brings him both power and despair, given that the glaring truth is that his iron-gloved father demands more of Robert than any other boy. Robert definitely has that feeling that there's a much larger world to explore. He’s actually quietly struggling with his confidence. He’s constantly trying to live up to his father’s extremely high expectations, so he puts on this strong persona to cover up his doubts underneath. The sensitive soul of 'The TCBS' is found in Geoffrey Smith, a precociously talented poet and developing playwright whose family refuses to sanction his love of writing. Geoffrey’s own feelings of isolation allow him to sense loneliness and that’s why he engages with Tolkien, he knows that friendship can be a real beacon of light in the darkness. Smith may not be an orphan like Tolkien, but his poetry has estranged him from his family. Only later will Geoffrey’s mother (Genevieve O’Reilly) come to glimpse the depth of his promise. His relationship with his mother is so difficult. There’s love there but they don’t know how to speak to one another. It really moves to learn that Tolkien went to such great lengths to publish Geoffrey’s poetry after the war.
The most candid member of 'The TCBS' is the wisecracking Christopher Wiseman, who's already showing tremendous promise as a classical composer. Wiseman may have no filter when it comes to offering his opinions, but underneath is a young man confronted with his own inner turmoil. Christopher is the one who just says what he thinks and doesn’t consider the consequences. That gets him into a bit of trouble. But he also believes that 'The TCBS' brings out the best in him. Wiseman and Tolkien develop a charged, competitive friendship full of lacerating wit and honesty. He’s already a published composer so that gets under Tolkien’s skin a bit. Christopher always pushes just a little bit too far, and that brings out the anger and the fear that Tolkien has to confront. The sparring that goes on between Tolkien and Christopher actually builds a strong respect between the two of them. Father Francis Morgan is the priest who becomes Tolkien’s guardian after his mother’s death. He's quite a fascinating character who becomes Mabel Tolkien’s friend and also her mentor when she converted to 'Catholicism'. Most importantly, he encourages his education, realising that for a boy without resources, or a family behind him, going to university is extremely important. Father Morgan though nearly blocks Tolkien from what will become one of the biggest influence on his life and work, his love for Edith. Morgan is rather alarmed at seeing a very young Tolkien getting distracted by this older woman, so he feels it his duty to intervene. Fortunately, later he realises that Edith is a wonderful person and he admits as much to Tolkien, telling him you're right to pursue her. Which for a priest of that time, is quite big of him really.
How do you express the mind of a genius visually? The film dugs deep into Tolkien’s stories and his illustrations, searching for how his mind operated, for ways to show how he saw the world. The film wants those who love the books to be able to trace everything you see in the film forward into Tolkien’s work, but also for that to be so subtle that the story is equally compelling without knowing a thing about 'Middle-Earth'. Like a spark to the global imagination, J.R.R. Tolkien’s book 'The Hobbit' set off a wildfire, single-handedly dominating the fantasy adventure genre in the last century. 'The Tolkien Effect' echoes everywhere throughout literature, television and movies. In his never-before-seen worlds and tales, Tolkien’s realms of wizards, hobbits, dragons and mythical beings evoke the best parts of human nature; our love of quests, our willingness to sacrifice for others, our hopes for good to defeat evil and the strength we get from true camaraderie. Now, with "Tolkien" comes a story of how the teenage Tolkien transformed from a lonely orphan into one of the great storytellers of all time, a story that's itself an enchanting tale lit with the power of imagination, the bonds of fellowship and the forging of purpose in the fires of love and war.
At the heart of "Tolkien" is the way that the material world all around us, from an ancient, gnarled tree to a pastoral farmhouse to the belief in the face of a friend or lover, can spark the wildest, most evocative imaginings. The camera always moves with Tolkien and his emotions. So if Tolkien sits and is in peace, the camera sits. If he moves or he's in turmoil, the camera amplifies or embodies that feeling with movement. Not all of the locations allowed this, but it gives us a really close experience to the actors and the main character. The sets also have a sense of life to them, real but just a little dreamy, the way a blossoming writer might see the world. Though the film starts on the battlefield, it soon cuts to Tolkien’s childhood home in 'Sarehole', which is key for setting the tone of his childhood. 'Sarehole' is later the inspiration for 'The Shire', so that's really important. It’s a story with four different time periods and elements that range from war to fantasy. It’s the story of an orphaned boy finding fellowship, going to war and discovering the one woman he’ll love for eternity. At the same time, it's about how Tolkien, in his creative brilliance, might have been inspired to weave each of these real things, friendship, war and love, into his incredibly lively fantasy worlds. The idea that through each of these light and dark experiences, Tolkien gained the voice to create the stories we’re more passionate about than ever now.