This film’s had poor reviews, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Dead Poets Society (well, sort of) in an English provincial city grammar/high school, with everyone drinking lots of tea. Sounds like heaven! There are very few books or films set in the sort of school I went to. Schools in industrial towns and cities tend to lack romantic mountain backgrounds, or seawater-fed swimming pools. And pupils are expected to do quite a lot of, you know, work, and passing exams, that kind of thing, which authors tend not to go for – The History Boys being the notable exception. But here’s a film set in a school with which I can actually identify – although, obviously, mine was a girls’ school, and I wasn’t there in Edwardian times! Don’t get me wrong, I love boarding school books, but the idea of secret tea parties in the library (people in books very rarely even set foot in school libraries, and get made fun of if they do) at a school like mine, or discussion groups meeting up in nearby tea rooms … ah, bliss!
The school in this case was King Edward’s, Birmingham. Shame it wasn’t a school in Manchester 🙂 , but, having been to university in Birmingham, I do know King Edward’s. I don’t know JRR Tolkien’s books, though. They’re just not my thing. A teacher at primary school tried to get us all into The Hobbit, but it really didn’t hold any appeal for me. So I think I probably missed a lot of the references in this film – I could see that they related to his books, but I didn’t quite get how. And I think some people have got annoyed because they thought it was overplayed, that every incident in the film was shown as foreshadowing something in the books. But, because I didn’t get them, I didn’t get annoyed by them!
Tolkien’s early life, the subject of this film, was fascinating. He sadly lost his father at an early age, and he, his mother and brother moved to a small house, supported financially by relatives until they fell out over religion. His mother then also died, and a priest arranged for him (his brother didn’t feature much) to attend King Edward’s, and for the two boys to live at a boarding house – where they met Edith Bratt, JRR Tolkien’s future wife.
Edith, also an orphan, was a few years older than Tolkien, but, as scriptwriters don’t like girlfriends to be older than boyfriends, in this they seemed the same age. Edith, brilliantly played by Mimi Keene from EastEnders, spoke about how scholarships at schools and universities were arranged for middle-class boys who’d fallen on hard times, but, as a girl, she was stuck acting as a companion to a boring old woman. It was a very interesting point.
At school, Tolkien palled up with three other boys, and they formed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, meeting up in the school library and in the nearby Barrow’s Stores tearoom, talking about arty stuff – as opposed to the down to earth, job-related subjects on which they were meant to be concentrating. There was a definite feeling of Dead Poets Society there – and this was a true story, 80 years before Dead Poets Society!
The film did actually start with the Great War, though, and jumped backwards and forwards, showing Tolkien at the front during the Battle of the Somme, then going back to his schooldays and, to a lesser extent, his university days at Oxford. He was in the Lancashire Fusiliers, interestingly. The university days and his experiences during the war weren’t done as well as his schooldays, unfortunately. We just saw that he broke things off with Edith because he was pressurised into concentrating on his work and because the priest didn’t approve of her. It was also suggested that he got into trouble and nearly had to leave due to losing his scholarship: I’m not sure how true that’s is, but I don’t see why they’d have made it up. And we didn’t see much of his Army life apart from him sitting in a trench and, later, lying in a hospital bed. The school stuff was definitely the attraction of this film.
Tolkien and Edith got back together, got married, had four children and lived happily ever after, but, sadly, two of his three schoolfriends were killed in the war. The effect that that must have had on him didn’t come across brilliantly – the film didn’t quite seem to know what to do with itself after he left school. It didn’t do particularly well at the box office, and the Tolkien Estate’s made it clear that it doesn’t endorse it.
But, for all that, I really liked it. I don’t know that much about Tolkien, and, as I’ve said, I’m not into his books. And, if there are historical inaccuracies about his life in this, then that’s not good. But, as a film about a group of boys at a grammar school in an English provincial city, and as a romance between two people who’d both had difficult starts in life, which was what much of it was about, it worked very well, and I enjoyed it.