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    Tove Is an Uneven Biopic of the ‘Moomin’ Books Creator

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    Tove, a handsomely mounted biographical drama, chronicles the life of the bisexual artist and author of the Moomin books, Tove Jansson (Alma Pöysti), from 1944–1952.

    The film, directed by Zaida Bergroth, and written by Eeva Putro, wisely focuses on Jansson’s salad days. She is chastised by her sculptor father Lars (Wilhelm Enckell) for not focusing her art on painting, claiming her drawings are not art. His chilliness towards her may be why she is something of a nonconformist. Tove claims she is a visual artist and her sketches of fanciful characters provide her with a sense of whimsy in her mostly drab life.

    Things change for her when she attends an “illegal” party (it is 1944, and the war is on). Tove meets the married Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney), and they sneak off to have a sauna. She tells him about her plans to create an artist colony in Morocco, where they can create their own morals. Atos claims he is openminded, and they begin a casual affair.

    Their relationship, and her lack of grants and work, however, can’t pay her rent. In one scene, she offers her landlord a painting because she has no money. However, at an art exhibit, Tove gets a plum opportunity when the mayor’s daughter, Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen), asks her to create an invitation for her father’s birthday. Attending the mayor’s party, Vivica boldly asks Tove, “Have you ever kissed a woman?” She is intrigued, enamored, and attracted. Invited to stay over, the next day Tove ends up in bed with Vivica.

    The encounter certainly awakens Tove’s spirit. She has found a muse, and it is cute that they communicate in Moomin-speak. Tove eventually makes it clear that this is not—as Atos hopes when Tove confides in him about bedding Vivica—an interesting experiment or act of freedom. Tove falls hard for this rich, comely woman, but when Vivica moves to Paris, she hopes Tove can join her there. Of course, Tove is not able to afford such a trip, even when she gets a commission to create a fresco at City Hall.

    That fresco was, not surprisingly, Vivica’s way of getting Tove the money to visit her in Paris. Likewise, Vivica, a theater director, encourages a collaboration by staging a play featuring Tove’s enchanting Moomin characters. However, Tove is more often hurt by Vivica personally, as Vivica seems to take on many other lovers, rather than committing to a relationship with Tove.

    Tove details its title character’s personal and professional ups and downs, and the drama is not uninteresting, but the film does not provide much in the way of what makes Tove tick. Yes, she’s fighting against a conformist society, and trying to eke out a career as an author and cartoonist, and she generates sympathy. Alma Pöysti makes the artist, a plucky young woman who searches for love and happiness, affecting.

    Yet, Tove’s emotions are best expressed through her dancing, which along with drawing, appears to be what gives her the most pleasure since her sexual relationships are so fraught. The film features a number of tender scenes of Tove and Vivica in bed, and of Tove and Atos together, but Tove seems to have more warmth in her few interactions with Tuulikki (Joanna Haartti), a woman she is introduced to, than with either of her lovers.

    Tove’s relationships form much of the drama and emotional center of the film. But they also create some heavy-handed moments, as when Tove explains to Vivica and an actor in the play that love makes the character in the play brave. Moreover, when Tove convinces Atos that they should marry—he has left his wife—it is more an awkward act of revenge against Vivica than a heartfelt passion.

    For fans of Jansson’s work who want to know more about the author, her literary success feels underdeveloped. The Moomin books may be famous, but little attention is given to that work. Her fame feels shortchanged. Perhaps Bergroth and Putro felt they should put the emphasis here on the author/artist and not the work, but it is a disappointing decision.

    Nevertheless, Tove does hold the viewer’s interest. Pöysti lets viewers feel her struggles trying to break through as an artist and as a woman hoping to break free of sex and gender roles in the conformist 1940s and 50s. She infuses Tove with a spirit that is infectious. As Vivica, Krista Kosonen cuts a striking, and at times imposing, figure. Her character is a bit one-note, but she is always alluring. In support, Shanti Roney makes Atos a genial confidante and companion for Tove.

    Ultimately, Bergroth’s film can feel uneven and underdeveloped, but it is mostly worthwhile.

    © 2021 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer

    Published on May 20, 2021