The young Tolkien is placed in foster care under a Catholic priest who later bans his girlfriend Edith, insisting the student go up to Oxford. There, Tolkien bonds with three fellow poets, the quartet calling themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS). The scenes of their poetry meetings at the Barrow are realistic and are devoid of the slow-motion filmic tics and posh-Brit characterisations typical of the genre.
War ensues. The company is burst asunder. In scenes of blood and death in the Somme, an injured, fevered Tolkien staggers through mud and gore in a fruitless search for two of the members of TCBS. Delirious, he thinks he hears the voice of one who is already dead calling desperately. As soldiers and horses are cut down and fire burns and blood pools into small dams of red, walled by the dead and dying, a horse momentarily transfigures into a black rider, and a tongue of fire resembles a shadowy dragon, its eyes embers.
But these scenes that fleetingly telegraph Tolkien's fictional characters amidst the fire and the craters of death are too subtle; too little for the film critics, clearly dulled by a hammering popular culture that wants a juvenile heavy-handedness and overt literality that kills any sense of foreboding or anticipation.
Suffering trench fever, Tolkien is repatriated to England, where Edith is waiting. The film ends with Tolkien's pen poised over paper, about to write the words you know he will write:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.Herald Sun reviewer Leigh Paatsch, under the headline 'Flawed of the Rings', complains that the cinema patron got " ... no bang for (his) Middle Earth buck ...". He should have noticed that the film's title is Tolkien, not The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, nor The Return of the King. Those films tell those stories.
Dome Karukoki's revelatory direction brings the sense of family and fellowship - we call it mateship - to the fore; the creation of bonds, the loss of them due to chance or evil; the horrors that live alongside human dignity; and at last, the theory as old as humanity itself: that good triumphs over evil.