The first thing that struck me was the trees. Tolkien famously said you can't get much about trees into a play, one reason he considered drama inferior to fiction, but the filmmakers showed this is not necessarily the case for film. I don't know whether the director, or cinematographer, or both shd get the credit, but the long loving bits as the camera pans over trees, past trees, and esp. up trees from trunk to branches helped quietly establish a setting that felt Tolkienesque. In fact this one aspect of the film was so successful I'm sorry they didn't do it even more.
The look and feel of the movie was also a success: it had that Merchant Ivory look about it that captured the place and the time (turn-of-the-century Birmingham). Maybe it's just me, but I find it much easier to relate to shows set in the near-past (say the last century or so), with their familiar clothes, furniture, etc., than to costume drama of earlier periods, which have a certain stagey-ness for me.
Also of note was the even-handed treatment of how being poor and an orphan deeply restricts a person's options -- I was going to say, in that time and place, but the same applies equally to the modern day. And the movie scores points for not making villains out of the people who stand in Ronald and Edith's way, like Fr. Francis (lacking empathy but comes round in the end) or Mrs Faulkner (the landlady, self-centered but not malicious).
So much for the good. The not-so-good came from the problem that's bedeviled many a biopic before it: the difficulty of showing on screen an internal process, whether it be art, or music, or writing. To their credit they tried with the 'cellar door' scene showing young Ronald creating a story out of an invented name.* It's therefore odd that they avoid having any of Tolkien's real drawings and paintings appear, or to use his actual invented languages. Presumably this wd be because of failure to get permissions to do so, but why then are they able to close the film w. the actual first words of THE HOBBIT? Bit of a puzzle, that.
I also have to admit that I liked the invented (amalgam) character 'Sam' as Lt. Tolkien's batsman. But the scenes of a fever-strickened, delirious Tolkien wandering around No Man's Land at the Somme in the midst of an all-out attack, seeing hallucinations of a Balrog** et al were bizarre. Apparently they wanted to show Tolkien on the battlefield but not have him take part in the battle, but it didn't work at all for me.
The greatest shortcoming of the film, however, was simply that it was oh. so. slow. Every scene seemed to go on too long. There's not any particular bits that I'd advocated cuttiing; it's the pacing of the whole that got to me. This movie feels much, much longer than its actual running time.
Perhaps this is a result of my knowing Tolkien's life-story extremely well, so that I knew everything that was going to happen at the beginning of each scene (the only surprises were the things they made up, which thankfully were surprisingly few). I've heard from some who have seen it who knew nothing of Tolkien's life, and they found the story of the doomed group of Tolkien's friends*** deeply moving.
So, not a disaster some feared, not the travesty it cd have been, just not the success I'd hoped for.
On the whole I'll count that as a bullet dodged.
current reading: Recently finished up a biography of Warren G. Harding by John Dean, part of the Schlesinger presidential series. Disappointing: Dean admires Harding and overdoes the rehabilitation bit.
Currently trying to force my way through Megan Lindholm's WIZARD OF THE PIGEONS, a mid-eighties urban fantasy set in Seattle that has certainly not aged well and is thoroughly unpleasant to boot (I've already gotten through the cat-mutilation scene and skipped the pages describing in extreme detail what it's like to chop off the heads of a bunch of chickens, including your special pet).
*for me this scene had echoes of one in A BEAUTIFUL MIND where the main character invents new constellations.
**unless it's meant to evoke the Sauron of the opening scene in Peter Jackson's FELLOWSHIP.
***i.e., the TCBS: John Ronald, Chris Wiseman, Rob Gilson, and Geoff Smith, to whom he paid tribute a half-century later, and one of whom I was fortunate enough to meet.