Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 2nd, 2021
Tove (Zaida Bergroth, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is a titan among Finns, creator of the Moomin universe, which includes comic strips, stage plays, children’s books and even a theme park. Her work comes almost exclusively from her own rich imagination, and though she may or may not be well-known here in the United States, she has a strong following throughout the world, even beyond Finland and its neighboring countries. I confess to complete ignorance about her, at least until last week, when I watched director Zaida Bergroth’s mostly fine biopic on her, entitled simply Tove. Though I still remain a little mystified as to the reasons for her characters’ appeal (a slight weakness of the movie), I am nevertheless happy to have spent 102 minutes learning about the woman, herself. It’s an engaging portrait from start to finish.
Alma Pöysti plays the title part, and like Tove, she is a Swedish-speaking Finn. We meet her in the waning days of World War II, as Finland still suffers attacks from both Germans and Soviets. A painter by training, she frequently finds herself at odds with her famous sculptor father, whose advice on her own output she often ignores. Even while creating serious works for exhibition, she constantly doodles her Moomintrolls (well, they’re far more than just doodles), ruminating in voiceover about their lives. At the same time, she finds herself at a romantic and sexual crossroads, discovering that though she heretofore has slept only with men, women now also occupy her interest.
Or at least one woman in particular does. That would be theater director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants). In a marriage of convenience, Vivica is something of an apex predator when it comes to conquests, tall and imposing to Tove’s more diminutive frame. She’s also rich while Tove is poor. It is she, however, who encourages her lover to pursue the Moomin ideas, even commissioning a play about them, which triumphs. Meanwhile, Tove simultaneously pursues a relationship with socialist journalist and intellectual (and member of parliament) Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney, X&Y), debating whether or not to marry him (after all, it worked for Vivica). Though she clearly has great affection for the man, she is increasingly drawn to the sapphic side.
Indeed, the movie’s opening scene, which we return to later, occurs exactly at that moment of indecision, where she could accept a more conventional life with Atos or follow her true inclinations. That doesn’t mean that Vivica, a serial seductress, is who she is meant to be with, however, and after many years of lonely pining, she does eventually meet the woman who will become her longtime partner. Before we get there, though, we watch her gradual success and eventual financial independence, all thanks to the Moomins.
It’s too bad that we are treated to so little of what clearly makes them special to so many. Director Bergroth (Miami) takes for granted that we know the full backstory, so for those of us who don’t, we’re out of luck. But that shouldn’t stop us from enjoying all that fascinates in Tove, courtesy of fully committed performances and the joy of seeing such a vibrant person find her way and her true self. See it for both the journey and the destination, then, even if some of the stops along the way don’t always resonate.