The story of the young writer J R R Tolkien, his experiences in the First World War trenches, his growing interest in the world of magic, and his passionate love affair with beautiful young pianist Edith Bratt, later to become his wife, has stirred up some unfavourable feelings among the late writer’s estate. This week they released a rare statement making it crystal clear that “they did not approve of, authorise, or participate in the making of” the film. The actress Lily Collins plays Edith – the inspiration for Tolkien’s most romantic female character, Arwen the elf queen in Lord Of The Rings. When I meet Lily in Los Angeles, she says firmly that whatever anyone may say about the details that did or didn’t make it to the screen, the love story between Edith and Ronald Tolkien, played by Nicholas Hoult, was “real and true”.
They met when Edith was 19, orphaned, and living in a boarding house in Birmingham.
Tolkien, also an orphan, was 16 at the time and living in the care of a Catholic priest, Father Morgan, a friend of Edith’s Catholic landlady.
The teenagers fell in love and as punishment were separated by a disapproving Father Morgan for almost five years until, on the evening of his 21st birthday, just a few hours after he had become legally adult, Ronald wrote to Edith asking her to marry him.
“This was a true story that they were each other’s real and first only loves,” Lily says now.
“It was love at first sight and it was really sweet because they met each other as orphans, they grew up together that way, and they had a deep understanding of each other.”
Lily says the film, directed by Finnish master Dome Karukoski, is a wonderful, moving narrative that she was proud to be a part of.
“I think the story could have gone in so many different directions, and I loved that Dome was specific about making the romance to be the centre,” says the 30-year-old daughter of drummer Phil Collins.
“A lot of people might expect the film to be too much one thing or the other, to have the hardcore war sequences be too powerful, or to have the fantasy elements take over.
“But I signed on to this knowing that Dome had the right perspective on balancing it all out.” Lily says of Edith: “She brought out the best in him, and encouraged his love of storytelling and vice versa, he encouraged her to want more for herself and to believe that more was possible.
“It’s the kind of love that we can write off as being just a fairy tale but in fact the fairy tale started in reality and ended up inspiring a fairy tale in his writing.
“This isn’t everyone’s story, but it was definitely their story. And I’m a hopeless romantic myself, so for me this was a lovely movie to be part of.”
Edith’s role in inspiring a mystical side to Tolkien’s writing appeals to Lily’s own love of all things magical as a child growing up in Guildford, Surrey, where she was born.
“Growing up in the English countryside, I would have names for all the trees and pretend there were fairies everywhere in my garden,” she says. “I was read all the fairy stories when I was in bed, whether it was Peter Pan, Snow White, Cinderella, or whatever it was. And I loved Harry Potter – I was the perfect audience when those books came out.”
The daughter of the Genesis frontman and his American-born wife Jill Tavelman, Lily was taken to her mother’s native Los Angeles when, aged five, her parents divorced.
She grew up spending time with both of them and says she was raised in an environment that was infused by magic in the home as well as in her head.
“My dad was in the film Hook so I remember visiting the set of that, which was exciting,” Lily recalls.
“And I’d always hear him singing around the house, which I loved listening to. Just silly little songs. He’d be working on something somewhere and we’d start to sing about it together in the house or in the car.
“And he’d sing to me before bed, too. You’ll Be In My Heart from Tarzan was written as a lullaby to me, so I very much lived in a household of music.”
Lily has three half-brothers: Simon, from her father’s first marriage to Andrea Bertorelli in 1975, and Nicky and Matthew from his marriage to Orianne Cevey, whom Phil wed after his divorce from Lily’s mother.
Nicky has followed his dad into music, and now performs with him when he goes on tour.
“I remember him at two waking me up by slamming away on his drums, and now he’s up there in front of thousands of people leading the band, which is crazy,” says Lily.
But she didn’t feel any pressure to pursue her dad’s profession.
“Both my mom and my dad were very much into the idea of, you study whatever makes you happy,” she says.
“I learned ballet and I was really into dance. I loved acting, obviously, but I was also really academic and I also loved sports, so I kind of played the field in lots of ways. But I wasn’t pushed towards anything specifically.
“In fact, these days, instruments are something that I almost wish I had to learn, although I suppose it’s never too late…” Surrounded by celebrities growing up, Lily learned very early on to distinguish between genuine friends and those who ingratiated themselves in the hope of meeting her famous father.
“I went to a wonderful school in Los Angeles,” she says hastily. “It was nurturing and loving and I still have friends from there but I also knew that some of the parents encouraged their kids to be friends with me because of that and it never worked for them because at a very young age I could tell, and I was always like, ‘I can read you – I know what’s going on’.”
One of her true – and oldest friends – is co-star Nicholas Hoult, whom she’s known for years.
“He is incredibly goofy and he’s also incredibly kind,” says Lily. “Not that you wouldn’t expect that but he is kind to every single person on set, whether it’s another actor or a member of the crew, or a catering person or a driver or whatever. He’s just a solid human being who puts other people first.”
Their friendship mirrors the bond between Edith and Tolkien – minus the romance of course.
“I think that soulmates don’t have to be romantic,” says Lily. “I think they are people you just make a connection with and who are the kind of people who it doesn’t matter if you’ve not seen them for a year or even two or three years, the second you’re back in a room with them, it’s as if you have never left.
“I’ve just had some of my best friends fly out to meet me in Alabama, where I’ve been working, and we drove to Nashville for a weekend of dancing and fun and horseback riding and listening to music and being silly and it was wonderful.
“My friends are the people I go to in order to keep me grounded, because if I get above myself, then they’re the first ones to point their finger and go ‘Uh-uh, come back down.’ “I rely on them for that.”
Tolkien opens on May 3 in cinemas nationwide.
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