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MRQE Top Critic

The Sweet Hereafter

(review...)

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This biographical account of J.R.R. Tolkien’s formative years requires a little bit of patience, but it offers some inspirational rewards in return.

In a Hole in the Ground…

J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult)
J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult)

While John Ronald Reuel Tolkien attended King Edwards’ secondary school in Birmingham, England, he became a founding member of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. Nattily dressed in ties, vests and sportscoats during their meetings in Barrows’ tea room, the young men would talk about poetry, music, painting and linguistics while back home their parents would pester them about becoming lawyers or accountants. The goal of this small clique of friends was much grander: to change the world through the power of art.

The T.C.B.S. was more than 100 years ago and yet J.R.R. Tolkien’s works have never been more popular than they are now. Peter Jackson turned his most beloved books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, into expansive big-screen movies that tallied nearly $6 billion at the box office worldwide. And in 2017, Amazon struck a $250 million deal with Tolkien’s estate to secure the rights to a 5-year series for its streaming service based on Tolkien’s fantasies.

That’s a staggering feat for a lad whose childhood was so impecunious his mother used the million-dollar word as a sort of vocabulary lesson during his home schooling. Tolkien’s achieved an unexpected level of immortality — and he’s changed the world through his art.

Mission: accomplished.

Fantasy in Adversity

It’s a complicated story, particularly in a visual medium like film, but John Ronald’s own story serves as a source of inspiration for those looking to find their calling and to live a life beyond their current station.

At its core, Tolkien takes a look at the creative process — the people, the factors, the events that shape and mold a creative mindset. Tolkien’s life was far from easy, at least in the early going. He lost both of his parents when he was young, spent time bouncing from one boarding house to the next, was forbidden to see the love of his life and lost a couple of his closest friends in the madness of World War I.

Through his mom (Laura Donnelly, Outlander on Starz), Tolkien learned the power of imagination and storytelling. She’d tell stories of dragons by candlelight, crafting a sense of magic to help escape an otherwise discouraging childhood.

As young Tolkien yearns for a more rewarding life, his mom somewhat teasingly advises him to either find treasure or marry well. When he challenges the very existence of “treasure,” she replies with another tease: “There’s treasure and there’s treasure.”

All served as influences and set the stage for what would ultimately become his defining work, The Lord of the Rings. His treasure was in his mind. As for marrying “well,” he found his soul mate. But she was a fellow orphan.

Edith

Edith Bratt (Lily Collins)
Edith Bratt (Lily Collins)

In Edith Bratt (Lily Collins, Rules Don’t Apply), John Ronald (Nicholas Hoult, Mad Max: Fury Road) found his perfect companion, a woman who was seemingly always at least a half-step ahead of him. Like him, she wanted out of her life of drudgery. As portrayed here, the woman behind the man could serve as the basis of a movie all her own. She was well ahead of her time, strong-willed and opinionated, but she had no outlet for her creative energies.

Edith would challenge Tolkien with his own ideas and ambitions. That’s demonstrated so well in a great scene of movie magic as the two enjoy dinner in an oh-so posh restaurant. He talks about creating a language called Selador and she turns the topic on its side, challenging John Ronald about the nature of the beauty of language. It’s not in the sound alone, as he posits; it’s in the marriage of the sound with the meaning — then there’s a gentle touch of her hand to his as she talks about the words “hand” and “touch.”

She goes on: “Tell me a story. In any language you want.” That challenge puts him on the spot. It’s a challenge he needs. And then, well, they get thrown out of the restaurant after Edith starts (playfully) misbehaving, making ladies in their ostentatious — but fashionable — hats the targets of her friskiness.

As their relationship evolves, he finally tells Edith she deserves more. Well, no. Scratch that. He goes further. He tells her, “You deserve magic.”

Tolkien could’ve focused exclusively on the budding philologist’s relationship with Edith and it could’ve been a fantastic, completely satisfying romantic drama. But it also could’ve focused strictly on the King Edwards and Oxford experiences that precede Dead Poets Society by more than 70 years. And it could’ve focused solely on Tolkien’s nightmarish experiences in the trenches of the Somme during World War I, where the German introduction of flamethrowers on the battlefield sent terror into opposing forces and quite possibly fused in Tolkien’s mind with all that had gone on before and transformed into the terror of fire-breathing dragons in his as-yet unwritten fantasies.

Within the space of less than 2 hours, Tolkien covers all of them. There’s so much more to each of those stories, naturally, but as a primer on a driving force in literature, Tolkien works well enough.

War and Faith

The production itself is first rate, recreating a time and a place — and a human condition — that was relegated to the history books a long time ago.

Given Tolkien was fascinated by languages — particularly Finnish — it’s interesting Finnish filmmaker Dome Karukoski, who revealed he’s also an ordained minister during a Q&A session at the Montclair Film Festival, was selected to direct this rather high-profile effort. Running under the radar in the U.S., Karukoski is a highly-regarded talent in Finland and it’s eyebrow-raising one of his movies, The Grump, was such an enormous success in his homeland, it out-grossed The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which was released in the same year.

Even with a minister at the helm, this movie’s focus isn’t on Tolkien’s faith — a priest forbid him seeing Edith in order to keep him focused on academics, at least until he turned 21. Nor does it particularly take an overt stance on war, although it’s virtually impossible to put World War I in a positive light. It truly was a battle of good versus evil on a massive scale that was previously inconceivable.

It’s a busy dance card to pack into a digestible movie experience, but the shortcomings of fulfilling such an ambitious scope are outweighed by the overall value the movie offers.

One Ring… and a Golden Circle

Part of that value is the simple fun of seeing various influences take hold on J.R.R. Tolkien.

One of those comes in the form of Richard Wagner and his opera Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Looking to impress and woo Edith, John Ronald takes her to see Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the opera house. The performance was previously derided by a fellow member of the T.C.B.S. — it shouldn’t take 6 hours to tell a story about a magic ring. Nonetheless, Tolkien knew Edith loved the opera and giving her that opportunity to escape ruled the night.  

Unfortunately, at that stage of his career, while still in school, his funds were limited and — with the upper seats already sold out — he couldn’t afford seats in the golden circle. Even if he could, there was a dress code for those prime seats that would still keep them out of reach.

Embarrassed by the situation, Tolkien vowed to never live like that again. This time, though, John Ronald goes on a whim and the couple takes in Wagner from behind the scenes, having snuck into the theatre’s wardrobe. A night gone wrong ultimately goes right romantically.

Surely a movie about a legendary figure like Tolkien carries with it an enormous amount of baggage, primarily carried by the author’s massive fan base. While it likely won’t satisfy all audiences, it offers a satisfying, multi-course meal for the uninitiated.