Let’s start with the good news. There are no hobbits or elves or whoever else it is who is supposed to inhabit Middle Earth in this film. There is even a joke. Discussing the Ring Cycle, someone asks who on earth would want to spend 6 hours watching people looking for a ring.
This is very much Tolkien, the Early Years, the schooldays and early University, culminating with the terrifying experience of the Battle of the Somme. It is also a film with a message – that audacity and fellowship can triumph over inbred privilege – which is contradicted by most of what we actually see on the screen.
Ronald (as JRR prefers to call himself) is plucked out of an idyllic rural childhood and sent to – Lord preserve us – Birmingham. There is a scene of the family entering their new home, looking very uncomfortable as they have to push past some visibly poor people.
Ronald’s mother dies, leaving him an orphan, but not before she has home schooled him in various esoteric languages. By the time he gets a scholarship to a private school, he also has just as posh an accent as any of his contemporaries.
At the school, he forms a society, which I was going to call a Poundland Bullingdon Club, but its more like a Waitrose Bullingdon Club. You won’t see the real elite there, but neither will you see anyone like uz. The main role of the society is to go to plush tea shops and to moan about how your parents want you to be a lawyer or accountant rather than fulfilling your desire to be a musician, artist or poet.
By imbuing themselves in Norse mythology and calling each other “comrade” the boys manage to challenge the system by forcing one boy’s father – the school headmaster – to back down when he won’t let them stay the night and play billiards. I’m sure that Chuck D will write their anthem just as soon as he’s seen the film.
Meanwhile, Ronald meets Edith, a fellow orphan who is staying in the same house as him. Edith confuses him by having opinions and ideas. She challenges his idealistic idea of language having its own beauty by giving him a quick schooling in linguistic theory. When he brings her to the society, and she engages them in discussion about Wagner, he drags her away for having the audacity to have thoughts in her head, and, even worse, to express them to other people.
Ultimately, he is forced by Plot to choose between Edith and an Oxford scholarship. Only he isn’t forced at all. Like most of the hard decisions which come here, it is nothing that would ever perturb either the very rich or most ordinary people. The thing that is holding him back is a desire to be part of an elite that has no need for someone who wears the wrong sort of suit to an opera.
The film looks good, is very well made, and some of the scenes at the Somme are spectacular. Despite itself, it does help explain some of the politics of Tolkien’s books, showing a great envy at being excluded from polite society, combined with an unstated contempt for the poor.
We could have done with more time with Edith, or with Derek Jacobi who does a brief turn as a professor with a Yorkshire accent, who walks on the grass in the quad, while Ronald is bound by his submission to old ritual to use the designated pathways. But ultimately, Edith lapses into the role of a supportive wife and mother, who regrets the fact that Ronald spends more time with his fairy tales than with her, but submits to this because it is her assigned role in society.
Summary: every so often, interesting things peek through, but the film is too in thrall to poshoes and leaves the exciting characters too often on the margins.