Nicholas Hoult, as the young J.R.R. Tolkien, and Derek Jacobi in a scene from “Tolkien.” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Nicholas Hoult, as the young J.R.R. Tolkien, and Derek Jacobi in a scene from “Tolkien.” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

‘Tolkien’ paints appealing portrait of ‘Lord of the Rings’ author

The film sketches J.R.R. Tolkien’s early life, and how his experiences gave birth to the novels.

If you’ve been wondering about the love life of the man who wrote “The Lord of the Rings” — and let’s face it, who hasn’t? — the new film “Tolkien” supplies a few answers.

It turns out that while J.R.R. Tolkien’s romance with the woman he would marry is charming, the biopic’s true heart lies with the future author’s friendship with a group of schoolboy chums who share a passionate devotion to literature and art.

Call it a fellowship, if you will. The movie certainly does.

The story tracks the modest beginnings of young Ronald Tolkien, born in South Africa and raised in Birmingham. As a lower-class orphan boy, he is out of place when his intellect vaults him into schools (eventually Oxford) populated by upper-class twits.

Played as an adult by Nicholas Hoult, Tolkien meets the fetching Edith (Lily Collins, the appealing daughter of Phil Collins). But religious differences — Tolkien was raised by a Catholic priest (Colm Meaney) — puts the courtship on hold.

Livelier, at least in the film’s depiction, is his circle of friends, a “dead poets society” of intellectual prodigies. Tolkien, who would become famous for the incredibly detailed fantasy realms of “LOTR” and “The Hobbit,” first distinguished himself with his precocious habit of inventing original languages. As one does.

What brings his world crashing down is the First World War, that slaughterhouse that reminded mankind we were perhaps not so far above the beasts as we like to believe. Having been in the trenches himself, is it any wonder Tolkien later worked through his war experiences in the fantasy genre?

This kind of movie — genteel, nicely designed, very British — is cranked out by the bushel, but “Tolkien” is a little better than the usual run. Director Dome Karukoski creates real intensity in some of the war visions, even though the film looks like it was made on a limited budget.

“Tolkien” has its admittedly cheesy moments, so enjoying this film comes down to whether you’re in the mood for a well-dressed period piece, which apparently I was. The movie doesn’t nail its attempts to depict how hobbits and wizards and elves were born from Tolkien’s youth, but it does create an appealing portrait of a brainy misfit.

This is largely due to the presence of Nicholas Hoult, who was first noticed as the nerdy kid in “About a Boy” and has lately distinguished himself in “The Favourite” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Hoult has the ability to suggest an essentially good soul who lives large periods inside his own brain. A tricky act, but Hoult convinces you this youth might become the prodigious writer someday.

“Tolkien” (3 stars)

The early years of J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult), whose escapades in love, friendship and war would later give birth to “The Lord of the Rings.” The movie has its cheesy moments, but Hoult and Lily Collins are excellent, and if you’re in the mood for this kind of well-dressed period piece, it creates a mood.

Rating: PG-13, for violence

Opening Friday: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Cascade Mall

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