Director: Zaida Bergroth
Screenplay: Eeva Putro
Based on a Story by: Eeva Putro, Jarno Elonen
Starring:Alma Pöysti, Krista Kosonen, Shanti Roney, Joanna Haartti, Kajsa Ernst, Robert Enckell
Country: Finland, Sweden
Running Time: 103 min
The Moomins are cultural icons, with the unique characters instantly recognisable to people the world over. It was the Japanese TV series produced in the 90s that made The Moomins a global phenomenon, but they were popular in Finland, Sweden and a few neighbouring countries way back in the mid-to-late-forties when the characters first appeared in a series of books and comic strips.
These original incarnations were the work of Tove Jansson, the daughter of respected sculptor Viktor Jansson and Swedish-born graphic designer and illustrator Signe Hammarsten-Jansson. Tove became a household name in Finland in particular where both the Moomins and her other work in art and literature made her a national treasure.
Another aspect of her life that stood Tove out was the fact she was openly homosexual, back when it was less publicly acknowledged in Finnish society (it was considered illegal until 1971 and still classed as an illness until 1981). Her relationship with Tuulikki Pietilä became common knowledge and the pair remained together for 45 years, until Tove’s death in 2001.
To celebrate the life of this amazing woman, Finnish writer Eeva Putro and director Zaida Bergroth have used their talents to create a biopic of Tove Jansson, simply titled Tove.
Rather than try to cover the author and artist’s entire life and career though, the film focuses on the mid-forties to the mid-fifties. This was a period when Tove (played by Alma Pöysti) first developed her Moomin characters and also when she began an open relationship with the married politician, Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney), before meeting her first female lover, Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen).
Vivica and Tove are shown to have had a turbulent relationship, with the former having several partners whilst the latter wanted to stay monogamous. The film shows how Tove grew to realise to find the love she desired required reciprocation.
The film also examines Tove’s relationship with her father (played by Robert Enckell). His view of art was more traditional and Tove is shown to feel undermined by his apparent lack of respect for her work in illustration whilst her ‘fine art’ pieces were proving less successful.
Tove the film is hitting UK cinemas this month and I knew my Moomin-loving Finnish wife would appreciate seeing it, so I volunteered to review the title.
I must admit from the start, I don’t like biopics at all. Depicting known figures on screen always feels too artificial to me and I don’t like the typical ‘important event’ tickbox-checking structure they often consist of. I much prefer to learn about the lives of notable figures through documentaries, letting them and their work speak for themselves.
So, I’m pleased to say Tove managed to sidestep one of those turn-offs. Not only does the film take a narrower focus on Tove’s life in terms of years, but it actually avoids spending too much time looking at the aspects we already know about. We see nothing of the actual publication of the first Moomin books and their success is taken as common knowledge rather than shown through cheesy montages or dramatic sequences.
Instead, the film focuses quite intimately on Tove and the three key relationships in her life at the time, those with her father, Atos and most importantly Vivica. So, the film feels less like a biopic and more like a relationship drama.
Unfortunately, going back to my own personal tastes, I’m not a big fan of relationship dramas either. So, this wasn’t a film aimed at me I’m afraid, but I still found much to admire.
Most notably, the central performance by Pöysti is excellent. She perfectly balances Tove’s strength in speaking her mind and following her desires whilst displaying a great fragility inherent in this woman who was struggling to find her identity at the time.
Also, whilst little fuss is made over exactly what Moomins material Tove was producing back then and how successful it was, the film does a good job of helping you appreciate where the inspiration was coming from. Her sketches, scribblings and descriptions of the characters and their actions reflect her own struggles at the time as well as depicting caricatures of important people in her life. The original Moomin stories were not simple kids stories, they had a subtle depth and melancholy that stood them out from the crowd. The film helps its audience better appreciate this.
Technically the film is also solid. It looks very nice, with warmly colourful production design reflecting the colours of Tove’s work. I also liked the offbeat, quietly melancholic score and use of period music (though the song choices aren’t particularly original).
At the same time, I found the film a little underwhelming though. Whilst I appreciated the choice to avoid typical biopic cliches, I didn’t find the central drama all that interesting. The on-again-off-again relationship with Vivica didn’t move or intrigue me and the idea of Tove’s father not appreciating her art felt cliched and more in line with bog-standard biopics.
So, though sensitively handled, as well as well crafted and performed, Tove perhaps lacks the depth and drama to be truly special. It’s certainly worth a look though, particularly if you’re a Moomins fan and want to know more about the woman behind them.
Tove is in cinemas 9 July from Blue Finch Film Releasing. It’s presented in Swedish (Tove was a Swedish-speaking Finn) with English subtitles.