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Score one for 'Tolkien' over 'Joan' in screen battle of Brit period pieces

Hoult woos Collins through thick and thin of a properly paced "Tolkien."
Two historical dramas open here this weekend, with the author of "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" outdistancing an alleged Soviet spy -- and quite easily, it says here -- in the department of dueling British bios.

"Tolkien," an exceptionally good-looking film, not only features rich performances from Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins but also offers an assortment of hints about how the works of the title student/soldier might have been influenced by certain pieces and events in his early years.

It begins in the taxing trenches of World War I, where Lt. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Hoult) endures a Battle of Somme-inspired fever dream, overflowing with flashbacks to meaningful moments from his life. Many of Tolkien's hallucinations detail his camaraderie with a trio of energetic schoolmates and, maybe not so ironically, the most artistically bloody war images quickly become reminiscent of the recent and stunning documentary, "They Shall Not Grow Old."

Of course,  Peter Jackson is the Oscar-winning director behind both that doc and, as everyone likely knows, his enormously successful, fellowship-filled adaptation of "The Rings Trilogy" for the big screen. Now, there's no sin in perhaps borrowing from the best, not to mention the possibility of actually enticing Jackson's fantasy fans back into the theater to learn more about Tolkien's personal history.

Besides, there's much more here than nods to Jackson, et al, including a few fine literary moments for Tolkien's ill-fated mother (a nice brief turn from Laura Donnelly), his sweetly proper romance with Edith Bratt (Collins), and only a couple of sparkling exchanges opposite an Oxford professor (Derek Jacobi), whose expertise in languages should provide learning motivation for all.

Director Dome Karukoski ("Tom of Finland") doesn't exactly make it a connect-the-dots trip to Tolkien's own triumphs, but he does drive a cohesive and entertaining vehicle that the Masterpiece Theater crowd will gratefully -- and likely gracefully -- hop aboard.

Rated "PG-13": some sequences of war violence; 1:49; $ $ $ $ out of $5

On the other hand, there's "Red Joan," a stale and stodgy telling with no real hints of the intrigue or urgency commonly associated with any number of more invigorating stories of espionage.

In fairness, as based on the novel of the same name by Jennie Rooney, this one starts when Joan Stanley is already old enough to be portrayed by the usually grand Judi Dench and living the sedentary life of suburban retirement. It's then that she is arrested suddenly in London and charged with treason for reasons explained in a series of, what else, but considerable and especially supportive flashbacks that might even turn her into a heroine.

In fact, though, the real Joan, on which Rooney's novel is based, truly betrayed Britain, not only by selling secrets to Soviet forces but by helping them develop their own atomic bomb. As it is, Sophie Cookson plays the young Joan as a Cambridge genius-turned physicist and someone we probably are supposed to admire.

No such luck. Then again, we are, after all, writing about bombs here.

Rated "R": brief sexuality/nudity; 1:40; $ $ out of $5

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