The Moomins, with their hippo-like silhouettes, are beloved cartoon characters familiar to readers around the globe. But less is known about their creator, the bisexual, Swedish-speaking, Finnish visual artist and author Tove Jansson and her surprisingly unconventional life. The engaging biopic “Tove,” from Finnish helmer Zaida Bergroth, goes a long way toward remedying that knowledge gap. Featuring a mesmerizing lead performance by Alma Pöysti, the sensuously textured film, shot on 16mm, concentrates on a formative decade in Tove’s life (from the mid-1940s to mid-’50s) and explores her artistic and personal passions, and the challenges they entail. With multiple hooks, sales and festival interest should be strong.
Born in 1914 and raised in an artistic, bohemian family in Helsinki, Tove is the eldest child of a prominent sculptor father (Robert Enckel) and a supportive graphic-artist mother (Kajsa Ernst). Although a student of painting, she, like her mother, also creates illustrations, including politically charged magazine covers. The Moomin characters and their friends develop from doodling distractions she makes while waiting in bomb shelters during the last days of WWII.
According to the pre-war artistic ideals of her father, her drawings are unworthy of her talent. He advises her to concentrate on painting instead. But her paintings fail to earn grants and attract few sales whereas she is able to generate a needed income through her graphic work. Among other well-observed details, Bergroth and Putro credibly depict Tove’s loving, but semi-competitive, often needling relationship with the senior artist in the family.
A firm believer that “life is a wonderful adventure and one should explore all its twists and turns,” Tove boldly launches a long-term affair with the married socialist politician Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney, sympathetic). While they both voice a firm belief in keeping their individual freedom and not letting emotions lead them astray, they each later find that is easier said than done.
In Tove’s case, she is unexpectedly swept off her feet by theater director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen, the star of Bergroth’s “Miami”), a seductive, upper-class woman who uses her wealth and a marriage of convenience to indulge her private passions. Soon, the two collaborate on a successful theater adaptation of Tove’s book “Comet In Moominland.” While their romance doesn’t last, their relationship inspires Tove to create the inseparable characters Thingumy and Bob and their secret language.
Although unhappy that Vivica is unable to fully reciprocate her love, Tove also realizes that it would be unfair to marry Atos, who finds himself more emotionally invested in Tove than he planned. The narrative treats their relationship with a believable poignancy that allows viewers to understand how Tove and Atos could remain lifelong friends.
As the film ends, we see Tove form a relationship with Tuulikki Pietillä, the woman who was to be her partner until her death. Remarkable 8mm footage of the real-life Tove dancing merrily on the secluded island where the pair spent their summers appears under the end credits.
Director Bergroth injects the fizzing energy of that archival sequence throughout the film by making Tove’s wild dancing a visual leitmotif, beginning with the opening prologue. Like Bergroth’s previous film “Maria’s Paradise” (2019), also a nuanced, fact-based period drama focusing on female relationships, the even more ambitious “Tove” beguiles audiences into the world of its characters.
Marking her fifth feature, Bergroth flexes her considerable cinematic powers, conjuring vibrantly expressive visuals and confident performances from her talented cast, especially the petite theater thesp Pöysti, who excels in her first leading film role and strongly resembles the real Tove. Her connection with the character is all the deeper for having previously portrayed her on stage.
The screenplay by Eeva Putro (who has a cameo role as the wife of artist Sam Vanni) sensitively constructs a case for Tove as a gay icon whose personal life makes coded appearances in her work.
The film’s 3.6 million Euro budget appears to be all up on the screen thanks to meticulously created interiors and costumes, from production designer Catharina Nyqvist Ehrnrooth and costume designer Eugen Tamberg. The striking set for Tove’s very lived in studio is a dead ringer for period photographs. Meanwhile, Bergroth’s longtime editor Samu Heikkilä keeps the action pacey, while the jazzy swagger of numbers from the Mambo Noir Trio on the music track proves more memorable than composer Matti Bye’s sparsely used score.