Tove Jansson, the famous Finnish author, painter and illustrator, is most widely known as the creator of the internationally beloved Moomins — who doesn’t love the white, round, hippopotamus-like fairy tale characters and their philosophical —if a little melancholic — outlook on life? Director Zaida Bergroth’s biopic delves further into the personal life of Jansson, the fraught relationship she had with her father as well as her passionate love affair with a female theatre director, rather than the Moomin stories themselves, but with meaning. What the film sets out to say, if a little clumsily, is set up beautifully in a question asked to our protagonists of her creation: ‘Why is Moomintroll kind all the time?’ It only takes Tove a moment to think: ‘Love makes him brave.’
The film begins in 1944 Helsinki, where Tove (Alma Pöysti) emerges from a bomb shelter to half-collapsed streets with a Moomin story twirling around her head. She walks back to her family home where her prized, but secret, illustrations are kept in the shadow of her father’s (Robert Enckell) more-celebrated sculptures. Tove’s paintings aren’t winning her the grants and commissions she needs for her independence, but her untold stories might. Her friends can see it, and her lovers will try to convince her; both the married politician she is having an affair with (Shanti Roney), and Vivica (Kritsa Kosonen), the wealthy daughter of the mayor who gives Tove a taste of true freedom.
A dominant focus of the film is Tove’s romantic relationship with Vivica Bandler, an ‘upper class girl pretending to be a theatre director’, who eventually adapts the loveable Moomin characters into a play and gives the world their first introduction to their adventures. From here on out, Tove bears comparison to Chanya Button’s feature Vita & Virginia, with the two female lovers’ tangible and turbulent power dynamic; an inspired but melancholic artist who speaks her mind, and her bold, brash, but oftentimes shallow, socialite lover (the illegal parties Tove and her friends visit full of artists, writers and politicians is also reminiscent of Woolf’s famous Bloomsbury Group).
The chemistry between the two women is natural and spontaneous, and truly convincing. However, the plot becomes swallowed up by Vivica, as Tove herself is swallowed up by her, when there is a significant theme largely ignored on the side-lines; the politics of art and war. Tove is a struggling artist, attending parties where freedom of speech, interests and sexuality are allowed to thrive, but in secret; where they scorn the Nazis and dream of venturing to Paris, Morocco and further in the hopes of creating their own morals from scratch. But the war has taken its toll on Finland, and perhaps the only place Tove’s dreams can find freedom is her fictional Moominvalley; that was, if Tove wasn’t the headstrong woman she is.
Early in the film, Tove views an empty apartment; a place that will free her from her father’s shadow. There are rafters scattered on the floor from the recent bombings, windows are broken and boarded up, and the radiator won’t work because there’s no running water — it doesn’t matter to Tove. She can fix them. And then it will be hers. Tove’s strength, as a character, really, is a resourcefulness that even she is perhaps unaware of — one that anyone familiar with her beloved stories will recognise. Life’s not fair, the world is hard to live in, emotions are fickle things; but we make do and move on. While Pöysti drives her performance from these places, there is a palpable need for it in Eeva Putro’s screenplay.
While biopics allow us a chance to delve into the mysterious creators of our most beloved fictions, there is a lingering feeling that Tove could’ve been elevated had there been a little bit more Moomin magic. An investigation into how her stories and skill grew, at a time of turbulence and fear, from secret sketches to award-winning comic-strips that were loved by thousands of children and adults alike, feels like it would have celebrated Tove’s life more than a single love affair that seems doomed (and only a fleeting meeting with Tuulikki (Joanna Haartti) at the end of the film, the woman Tove would live out her years with).
The film concludes with real footage of Tove Jansson jumping and dancing happily down a hill. It’s a joyfulness that doesn’t quite feel replicated in the cinematic adaptation that proceeds it. The film is too occupied on showing the tumultuous affair between Tove and Vivica that indeed bears merit in the artist’s life story, but perhaps does not deserve to overwhelm it. While thoughtful and moving, Tove fails to achieve the wistful optimism and, at times, melancholic truth Jansson’s spirit, most famously in the form of her Moomins, offers to the world.
Tove is available in US cinemas from June 3rd and UK cinemas from July 9th
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.