"I never called Edith Lúthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos."
I believed this, watching the film portray their relationship. I felt it course through the whole story. Whatever else can be said about the film (and I am a fan, for what it's worth), and the rearranging of timelines etc., they nailed this theme. And the film is so much the better for it.
This one is tough for me, because I was working on a script encapsulating exactly this period of time, and my vision of this was always more innocent. Emphasizing their intellectual attraction. The whole “you were in her room” conversation with father Francis seems to imply a less innocent relationship. The image that has always stated with me is the two of them talking to each other from window to window at the boarding house. There is very little sense of the relationship developing from a shared life together.
And the whole engagement thing bugged me, too. Tolkien is portrayed as very passively accepting the whole thing; the letter he sends is the letter he has sitting on the shelf for years, as far as we can tell. The impression I got, at least from Carpenters bio, is he went out and won her back. There is no sense of his mounting an attack for her affections, which is sort of the vibe I’ve always gotten.
I didn’t hate the film (and especially not this part, though I found it lacking. I’ll write about my biggest objections when I am not on my phone.
There are a number of things that bother me about the movie, but, right now, the biggest is in the nature and character of Tolkien. He is presented as a genius with languages, and someone with an inventive imagination, but those traits are pasted onto a fairly generic young rebel archetype. For a film that is about Tolkien, vast swaths of his personality are overlooked, and an equal amount is just made up.
For instance, he gets into a brawl with one fellow, and punches another. I am not an expert on the life of Tolkien (my big kick was almost two decades ago, and details fade), but this seems a little ... brutish for Tolkien.
Faith plays no role in the film (do we even need to mention this? It seems a given, but, for someone as devout, even as a child, as Tolkien was, it does nothing but lessen the character), and, while Tolkien accepts Fr Francis' saying "you can't see her until you hit the age of majority", again, Tolkien is sullen and pouty and prone to standing on desks and saying "oh captain my captain." Wait. Wrong movie, but only just.
All in all, it feels like the director and writers were projecting a modern character with modern sensibilities back onto Tollers. There are frequent little touches that show us that yes, they did their research, but most of it feels like the trappings of his life, but it rarely felt like they touched his heart.
I noticed the downplaying of his Catholicism too, and I admit that one struck me. It was clearly a conscious choice by writer & director. And it would be interesting to hear why. As for the brawling, etc., I think we see this in movie adaptations over & over -- the psychological is hard to put on screen, so it is reinterpreted as physical. (See PJ's LOTR movies where, say, Gandalf & Saruman have a physical wand-battle, or when Gandalf pulls Saruman out of Theoden.) As for it being brutish, Tolkien did choose to play rugby after all; it seems a part of him in his youth enjoyed raw physicality.
For me, I got more out of the film's version of Tolkien than just his genius for language and inventiveness. I saw strong will & willingness to advocate for himself; firm sense of duty even when it conflicted with his desires*; deep abiding love of & support for his friendships; what Edith meant to him as muse and partner; how his later writing would be informed by his experiences -- idyllic childhood at Sarehole (the scene at the back of the horsecart with its hanging lamps felt like a slice of the Shire) to hellish scenes & memories at the Somme.
I think the film managed to tick many boxes of what we know, and they did it in a way that could introduce young Tolkien to people who had never before really considered his younger years. I'm unconvinced by some of their choices, but I still think it was well-done.
* two major life-derailing events: his forced parting with Edith & being called to serve in the war. Those don't fit the idea of the rebel archetype, in my view.
I thought it was fine in terms of accuracy (they play about with things, but that's sort of expected in a movie) but overall quite dull and trite. It feels all smooth edges and saccharine airs. When people have disputes it's with just the right level of not tipping the boat and remaining chummy. Tolkien himself is a fairly blank, passive character and doesn't come across as authentic. Similar for Edith. Gilson was the only person that really stood out to me (reminded me of some annoying friends I have).
The pacing was quite slow for most of it, and then very rushed at the end. I don't mind the slow pacing so much, but it seems a shame we didn't get more of the dwelling on how he lost his friends before suddenly skipping ahead 20 years.
The way they cut out having Tolkien chasing Edith upon finding out she's engaged was a bit weird, I thought. Surely that's a bit of truth that works really well for a movie?