Director Dome Karukoski’s portrait of the man who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings tells three intertwining tales. The first and most artful of these gives us the making of a writer: an orphan whose mother taught him to love language before she died, a nature lover forced into the brimstone-belching industrial world, a boon companion who loses friends to the horrors of the First World War. The second — blunter, sometimes clumsier, but not without worthwhile points and pleasures — gives us the making of the works themselves. It may be a bit on the nose to translate the mortar bursts and mustard gas of The Battle of the Somme directly to the blasted monstrosities of Mordor, but when your subject spends a good part his literary energy mourning the violent destruction of a civilization, some allowance may perhaps be made. And the third? The gradual, sometimes wince-worthy, but ultimately gratifying making of a man, as he learns to love a woman. Tolkien casts a delicate spell: it’s not difficult to imagine some viewers proving utterly impervious to its peculiar magic. But some others will be enchanted and even transported by its charms. (2019) — Matthew Lickona
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