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Producer: Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, David Ready and Kris Thykier
Director: Dome Karukoski
Writer: David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford
Stars:  Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynn-Carney, Craig Roberts, Harry Gilby, Adam Bregman, Albie Marber, Ty Tennant, Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O'Reilly and Pam Ferris
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures


Lots of actors have played famous authors in movies, but Nicholas Hoult does them one better. After taking on J.D. Salinger in “Rebel in the Rye,” he now turns to J.R.R. Tolkien in Dome Karukoski’s “unauthorized” take on the philologist/writer who created the fantasy world of hobbits that has entranced so many devoted followers. Hoult is quite good in both parts; unfortunately, the movies are overall disappointments.

“Tolkien” takes up the writer’s life when he was an adolescent (Harry Gilby), gamboling about with friends in the English countryside. His father had died some years earlier, but he’s happy with his mother (Laura Donnelly), who regales him and his younger brother with fantasy stories. Unfortunately, she finds herself in such financial distress that she’s compelled to move the family to a dingy flat in industrial Birmingham. (The script doesn’t bother informing us that their poverty resulted from the fact that she had converted to Catholicism, and her furious family cut off any further monetary help.)

Then she dies, and the priest whom she had appointed her sons’ guardian, Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney) places them in the home of wealthy dowager Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris), who takes in orphans. He also secures the boys a slot at a posh prep school in the city, where Tolkien falls in with three other precocious classmates with whom he will form a de facto literary society. They’re Robert Gilson (Albie Marber), the son of the harsh headmaster (Owen Teale); Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant), a jocular sort; and Geoffrey Smith (Adam Bregman), an aspiring poet.

As Hoult takes over from Gilby, these three grow into Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynne-Carney and Anthony Boyle. They are the inseparable members of what at one point is called a fellowship, which, the film implies, was the model for the one in Tolkien’s later work—a group of comrades-in-arms in a fantasy world of threats and monsters drawn from what the writer, suffering from fever, experienced during his service at the Battle of the Somme in World War I, where two of his closest friends died. (Periodically surreal inserts of Tolkien’s frightful time in No Man’s Land as he desperately searched for them are inserted into the film. It’s hardly an accident that the lieutenant played by Craig Roberts who cares for Tolkien during his illness is named Sam.)

Another person Tolkien meets who contributes part of the world he eventually creates is Edith Bratt (played first by Mimi Keene, and then Lily Collins), whom, in this telling, he meets as another orphan in Mrs. Faulkner’s care. They grow close, and Tolkien comes to share her love of Wagner’s “Ring des Nibelungen”; though he can’t afford to take her to an actual performance, the two do get a chance to listen from the cellar of the concert hall, even miming the roles in a sort of early cosplay. But when Father Morgan comes to fear that their romance is interfering with Tolkien’s college-entrance exams, he orders the lad to cut it off—which his ward does, at least until he turns twenty-one.

Thus we get a foreshadowing of both the fellowship and the ring from the author’s youthful life, molded into something more imaginative by his experiences in wartime. Or so the film suggests.

How much of this is speculative and how much an actual reflection of Tolkien’s makeup is hard to assess (certainly his romance with Bratt is highly embellished), but the matter of Tolkien’s years at Oxford is based substantially on what actually occurred. He switched from classics to philology and become a pupil of Joseph Wright, the expert on Gothic, who apparently encouraged his fascination with imaginary language and Germanic myth. Then came the heroic struggles of the war and the painful loss of his friends.

As screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford would have it, all these varied elements coalesced when Tolkien, having come back from the war and settled into academia and married life with Edith, whom he had never stopped loving (nor she him), sat down to write. The film ends with his composition of the initial sentences in a careful calligraphic hand and his invention of the term he would apply to his diminutive hero Bilbo Baggins; the concluding shot can be converted into almost Biblical terms: “And then there was…Hobbit.”

Tolkien himself would probably have objected to this neat cataloguing of influences as the explanation for his creative accomplishment, and his estate has pointedly disavowed the film; one certainly cannot deny that it takes liberties with the record. For one more interested in drama than biographical accuracy, however, the problem with “Tolkien” isn’t that it often plays rather loose with facts (in fact, it offends no more often than most movies based on the lives of real people) or that its psychological portrait of Tolkien is debatable (no such depiction can be taken as definitive). The difficulty isn’t so much that the picture is rather crudely reductionist, but that it’s stately, ponderous, and rather dull.

That’s not the fault of Hoult, who nicely conveys Tolkien’s naturally shy and nervous personality (Gilby captures that quality in the younger version of him as well), nor of the rest of the cast—Collins is quite lovely and engaging as Edith, however much the writers might have re-imagined her, and the younger and older actors who play his school chums are all effective, even if they sometimes overplay their characters’ ebullience and self-assurance (or, in later stages, their moroseness).

Nonetheless none of them, to a certain extent, can escape a certain feeling of archness that the staid, Masterpiece Theatre approach Karukoski imposes throughout. Though beautifully appointed—one has to admire the elegant period detail in Grant Montgomery’s production design and Colleen Ketsall’s costumes, and the luminous widescreen images cinematographer Lasse Frank has fashioned—Karukoski’s leaden pacing, even in scenes where the boys are at their most exuberant, and Harri Ylonen’s prosaic editing stifle the forward momentum. One can also question the wisdom (and quality of execution) in the recurrent World War I sequences, which are of course meant to be hellishly horrific but, with their mediocre special effects (including a few fantastic monsters), come across as a misjudged attempt to approximate a fever dream.

The film is enlivened from time to time by the work of veteran actors who know how to savor the opportunities for broadness the script provides. Meaney and Ferris are the most obvious scene-stealers in the initial stages, but the most notable example comes later, when Derek Jacobi shows up all too briefly as Wright, turning the old fellow into a wild-eyed, fanatical academic prima donna—the very image of a dotty Oxford don. It’s terribly hammy, but makes the movie’s pulse race for a change.

Scholarship on Tolkien has become a cottage industry, and legions of readers still flock to his books, and to the epic movies Peter Jackson has made from them. It’s doubtful that similar numbers will embrace “Tolkien.” Serious and reverential but stolid and oddly pedestrian, it will probably please the author’s devotees no more than those who have never opened one of his tomes.


Producer: David Parfitt
Director: Trevor Nunn
Writer: Lindsay Shapero
Stars: Judi Dench, Stephen Campbell Moore, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Tereza Srbova, Freddie Gaminara, Nina Susanna, Laurence Spellman and Stephen Boxer
Studio: IFC Films


When a distinguished actress and an equally distinguished stage director collaborate on a film, one hopes for something special. Unfortunately, in “Red Joan,” the combination of Dame Judi Dench and Trevor Nunn results in something not appreciably better than a mid-level Masterpiece Theatre episode.

The picture is based loosely on the life of Melita Norwood, a British woman who passed along highly classified information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union in the late forties, but who was not charged with espionage until 2000. Her story was novelized by Jennie Rooney, and now that fictionalized version serves as the basis for Lindsay Shapero’s screenplay. Perhaps it was the passage of the material through so many stages that led to a film that comes across as surprisingly starchy, stilted and clichéd.

It begins with elderly Joan Stanley (Dench) answering a knock on the door of her London home to find a couple of government agents, who promptly accuse her of violations of the espionage act and place her under arrest. The remainder of the film jumps back and forth between her interrogation and explanatory flashbacks to the events she’s being questioned about. Eventually she will admit her guilt, asking her incredulous son Nick (Ben Miles), a barrister, to represent her in court if necessary.

Back in the late thirties, mousy Joan (played by Sophie Cookson) was studying science at Cambridge when she met flamboyant Sonya (Tereza Srbova), a Jewish refugee from Germany, and her handsome cousin Leo (Tom Hughes), with family roots in Russia. Under their influence, she attended anti-fascist meetings and demonstrations to take action in Spain; she also took up romantically with Leo. Without thinking about it much, she’d become a part of a communist cell, which also included slick William Mitchell (Freddie Gaminara).

With the outbreak of World War II, Joan, with her background in physics, became an assistant to Professor Max Davies (Stephen Campbell Moore), a major figure in a British project to develop an atomic bomb. She accompanied him to Canada when he was assigned to a facility there associated with the Manhattan Project, and on the voyage across the Atlantic they too became lovers despite the fact that he was (unhappily) married.

As the older Joan explains, her political attitudes had developed when Sonya and Leo suffered discrimination because of their views and a tragedy occurred, but it was not until Hiroshima that she decided to transmit atomic secrets to the Soviets. Her motive, she says, was to help create a balance between the two powers and thereby to promote peace—and in the end even Nick, who initially had seemed unable to come to terms with her treason, argues to reporters that her logic appears to have been correct.

Whether or not you’re willing to accept the premise (one the film seems to share with Joan) that the Cold War’s balance of terror—the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction in practice—was key to preventing a renewed world war, the sad fact is that Nunn’s film doesn’t manage to make her emotional journey to that conclusion very convincing from a dramatic perspective. A major cause of the failure is the stiffness of the flashbacks, which under Nunn’s lumpish direction are generally played with too much of the stiff-upper-lip British style that’s become a stale tradition. It doesn’t help matters that the young actors, while attractive enough, often appear to be playing period dress-up rather than creating compelling characters. There’s a good deal on the surface, but one doesn’t feel much going on underneath it (which, nonetheless, looks quite nice, thanks to Cristina Casali’s production design, Charlotte Walter’s costumes and Zac Nicholson’s lustrous cinematography). At least Kristina Hetherington’s editing keeps the back-and-forth chronology smooth, though George Fenton’s score is fairly generic.

Dench is of course the anchor of the “modern” footage, which according to the script began after young Joan’s treason was finally revealed in 2000 as a result of the death of Mitchell. The actress plays fluttery and distracted very well, as you’d expect, but the part doesn’t give her the opportunity to exhibit much range.

There’s a potentially rich story in Melita Norwood’s life that is barely tapped in this tepid refashioning of it. Nunn’s “Joan” may be red, but dramatically it’s definitely not red-hot.