by Olivia Shan
Artist, writer, comic strip illustrator, painter, political satirist, and occasional set designer— the inimitable Tove Jansson and her work are some of Finland’s greatest cultural exports. Today, she is best known for being the creator of The Moomins, and it’s no wonder; the children’s books and comic strips featuring the adventures of this family of friendly, home-loving creatures and their idiosyncratic friends — published originally during the 1940s and 50s— remain global literary and cultural phenomenons to this day. Zaida Bergroth’s Tove, a biographical film on the artist herself, succeeds at capturing the life and spirit of its subject in a genuine and tender way, all the while avoiding biopics’ more formulaic trappings.
We initially follow a young, still unknown Tove (Alma Pöysti) during the mid 1940s; a time when the unmistakable figures of the vaguely hippopotamus-shaped Moomins—iconic as they are today—were mere doodles which helped distract Tove from the chaos of war and her hostile, disapproving father. Having failed to receive any grants and feeling suffocated at home, she rents out a room of her own and attempts to save her dwindling painting career. Eventually, she begins a relationship with a man, the philosophically-inclined socialist Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney), but ultimately falls head over heels for a woman, Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen), a local theatre director. Her complexe love for both Vivica and Atos catapult her to discover her true creative potential. Although the film touches on the different artistic endeavors Tove undertakes during this era of her life — from her early gig as a satire cartoonist for leftist political magazines to her becoming an established author and starting her Moomin-centric comic strips— at its heart it seeks to explore how Tove’s personal self-actualization intersects with the gradual creation of the very works that would become her legacy.
A full-blown biographical film about any historical figure—especially if done without any real care — can easily slump into a heavy-handed snoozefest. One of the ways in which Tove counters this is in its focused timeframe. All the events are set during an earlier, less well-known period of Jansson’s career, before she would mature into the internationally renowned Moomins creator. Thanks to this narrowed-down perspective, the movie has the time to develop its subject from a character into a fully-fledged person. Moreover, Alma Pöysti plays the lead role with masterful subtlety; Tove’s endearing awkwardness, her hesitation, her quiet strength and assertiveness, her rebellious spirit and exuberance for life are all wonderfully conveyed.
As a viewer, you grow to care deeply about Tove, just as the filmmakers evidently do as well. Her confusions, her complicated personal relationships, her insecurities as an artist are at all times presented with compassion and sincerity. This is a relatively quiet movie, with no big thrills or cheap melodrama, but it in no way undermines the gravity of how challenging it was for lesbian women of that era to find their own way and still thrive in their societies; rather the profound gentleness and optimism this story exudes only makes one even more empathetic to Tove’s struggles.
Moomin fans should rush out to go see this movie as soon as they can— if they haven’t done so already— but this bracing film about the creative process will appeal to just about any movie gooer. Tove knows the story it wants to tell, and tells it masterfully.
Tove opened in cinemas July 2.
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