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film review

Tove – Review

It is hard not to picture Tove Jansson (1914-2001), as a shyly smiling, jumper-clad woman pushing 70, windswept or chain-smoking on her island of Klovharun. Zaida Bergroth’s charming new film seeks to expand upon that image and expose more about the woman, artist, writer and Moomins creator. What’s in a name? Tove [Too-veh]. Such a diminutive old Norse word meaning ‘beautiful thunder’ and so obviously close to the English spelling of love, and boy did she ever. It appears to have been the driving force of her whole life’s wonderful adventure.

Tove focusses on three specific time periods 1944, ’47 and ’52 as Jansson navigates her artistic struggles, successes, love and loss. Beginning during war-time – after a brief and lively opening vignette – 30-year-old Tove (Alma Pöysti) sketches as bombs sound around her. It immediately establishes place, time and general mood as life, in Helsinki, begins again. There’s more disagreement with her famous sculptor-father Viktor (Robert Enckell) in which he once again attempts to dismiss her work and instil his artistic merit upon her. Apparently, her drawings do not constitute as ‘art’ – and she even describes herself as a “a bleak shadow of his genius” when eyebrows raise at the sound of her surname.

She leaves the family home and rents a dilapidated space ravaged by the war, missing windows, heat and electricity in order to gain her independence and create. Living, loving, working and sleeping in one large room. While Tove’s frustrations are evident, she continually strives to push herself without ever fully realising her artistic success and as the years advance, how beloved she will become. From her solo art exhibitions, tenure as a visual artist on GARM magazine to her publications of Moomins stories and weekly comic strips in the Evening News, all are given some attention here. As are her love stories, for there are many. Affection surrounds her via her graphic designer mother Signe (Kajsa Ernst), brother Lars (Wilhelm Enckell), fellow artists Sam Vanni (Jakob Öhrman) and Maya Vanni (played by the film’s screenwriter Eeva Putro) – but none more impactful during this time than her lovers, journalist-cum-MP Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney) and theatre director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen). It is their relationships which allow for personal and professional growth, and which sets her on the path to meeting the love of her life.

While Tove’s lifestyle trangressed the conventional, the film seeks to normalise it in the same vein as Carol (2015) and Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017). Depicting a time when society refused to accept the existence of the queer community. There was huge risk involved, Finland wasn’t always so advanced in relation to LGBTQIA+ rights. The decriminalisation of homosexuality did not occur until 1971 and then it, and lesbianism, (there was no word for pansexuality then either) was considered a diagnosed ‘illness’ for another decade after. Tove’s bravery to live authentically is the film’s main focus.

Whether you consider Jansson a pansexual radical or not remains to be seen – though when one thinks of the themes and amorphous gender identities embedded within the Moomin stories and the many satirical caricatures in print by her hand over the years, she was. Bona fide. Yet what we do get here is a fully-formed, credible version of her and that’s largely due to Alma Pöysti’s wonderful performance. No stranger to Jansson, she first portrayed her on stage in 2017.

Resemblance aside, her Tove is a joy: fierce, child-like, funny, wicked and supremely talented. People are drawn to her sunny disposition. Which is often literal as she is bathed in light, yellow and golds emitting a halo of warmth around her head and making her face glow. At times Tove is the burst of colour within a frame of muted dullness while at others, primary colours flood scenes, with the room décor matching Tove’s costumes -beautifully designed by Eugen Tamberg – the fabrics of which are often reminiscent of illustrations which are in and adorn the Moomin books.

This attention to detail and use of light and tone is gorgeous and make Catherine Nyquist Ehrnrooth’s production design and Linda Wassberg’s cinematography sing. All cherry-topped with Mattie Bye’s eclectic soundtrack which brings together the likes of Josephine Baker, Edith Piaf, Glenn Miller and the more contemporary Mambo noir trio amongst his own compositions. Dancing was incredibly important in Moominland and it seems only fitting that Tove has her own recurring motif when she goes to bust a move in the form of Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing which bookends the film rapturously.

Little has changed in regards to the discourse surrounding art and the preoccupation with dictating who can create and what (but that’s a patriarchy for you). Declaring one form as somehow superior to the other was just as ludicrous as it is now; art is art just as love is love, and thankfully while it clearly gave her pause, it never stopped her. Jansson began providing illustrations for GARM at fifteen and continued until 1953, her work found its way into publications of The Hobbit and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. She authored five novels and seven short story collections which followed the seventeen works (including novels, short stories, picture books and comic strips) featuring her beloved Moomins.

It is heart-breaking in those moments when she considers herself a failed artist, and dismisses the stories and sketches as “just for children”. Especially when she worked so tirelessly on the drawings and placed herself and each and every person she loved within the pages, constantly using words and pictures to express her feelingswhether they were separated or not. Moomintroll became her alter-ego (“Love makes Moomintroll brave”), Atos became Snufkin, Vivica/Vifslan – Jansson was able to code their love in the symbiosis of Toflslan and Vifslan (known as Thingumy and Bob) – and her partner of 46 years Tuulikki Pietilä (Joanna Haartti) the inspiration for Too-Ticky. Staggeringly, on top of all of that, she still found the time to write some 92,000 letters (by hand) to her ‘darlings’. This connection between art and love is rendered beautifully in the film whether through the re-painting of a canvas in stifling white, the creation of a fresco mural, or new love triggering a portrait in oils.

Tove is a sumptuous celebration of an inspirational and adventurous life. It intimately re-creates just eight years in the life of an iconic artist and the genesis in the creation of a cultural legacy. A beautiful thunder clap that lived with courage, curiosity, and passion, and one who loved fiercely and honestly.

Tove is in cinemas 9 July from Blue Finch Film Releasing

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Blu-ray Review

The Miracle Worker – Blu-ray Review

(1960) Dir. Arthur Penn

Helen Keller lost her sight, hearing and ability to speak at 19 months old after contracting a mystery illness (although, Doctors now believe it was more than likely Scarlet Fever). Over 25 years, she learnt to communicate and learn. Her schooling took her from Alabama to Boston and New York before she graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1904 aged 24 and so – following the publishing of her memoir The Story of My Life – began her career of social and political activism (women’s suffrage, birth control, pacifism, socialism), and as an lifelong advocate for the blind and deaf before co-founding the ACLU.

By Keller’s side, during this time and until her own death in 1936 was Anne Sullivan. Sullivan became Keller’s teacher at just 20 years-old when she left The Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts for rural Alabama and the cotton plantation that the Kellers lived on.

It is this time period – well, that first month to be exact – that is the basis for The Miracle Worker. Keller’s story would have its genesis in TV before heading for the Broadway stage. It was adapted for the screen by William Gibson (who originally wrote the stage play) with Arthur Penn directing his own Broadway hit in 1962. Both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke reprised their roles from the stage to screen to critical acclaim including two gold and shiny Academy Awards which they both received, respectively, following the film’s release.

While it opens rather histrionically, with a scene between Kate Keller (Inga Swenson) and the Captain (Victor Jory), thankfully the film quickly finds it dramatic feet with those early moments giving weight to the immediacy Helen’s hearing, speech and sight were lost as a baby. The first seven years pass in the blink of an eye and the young Helen is now wild, unruly, almost feral because no one understands her (or even really tries to). Instead, they allow her to get away with erratic behaviour and even violence, a concept far easier on their lives.

Our introduction to Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) is at the train station bidding her current students’ farewell as she leaves for Alabama. The slight Irish lilt is a little distracting given that the real Anne, although the daughter of Irish immigrants, was allegedly born in Boston, however, it serves as way of establishing the difference in background of the woman – whose own sight was damaged at aged five – and the Kellers who reside on the plantation property.

It is during this travelling montage that we see flashes of Anne’s memories and her humble beginnings. Images are out-of-focus and superimposed within the frame, almost like photographs that have not been properly developed. It’s an excellent touch and however fleeting immediately flag the aspects of life Anne is haunted by. Within moments of meeting each other, Helen learns the word ‘D-O-L-L’, however, with family members still around offering unnecessary commentary describing Helen as either a ‘monkey’ or ‘fencepost’, Anne’s job is never made any easier.

Bancroft’s Sullivan takes no prisoners. She is pushy, likes to challenge the rules with her quick temper, and as a result her relationship with the Captain comes across as a pre-cursor to that of George Banks and Mary Poppins. The two are continually at logger-heads not helped by his ‘Southern Gentleman’ ways, booming voice and dismissive, tyrannical nature. Anne attempting to teach Helen is a long, arduous task. Yet, at no point is the child pitied. Duke humanises her, makes Helen a fully formed character who happens to have a disability. One which her family seeks to define her by.

These scenes between are utterly compelling but hard to watch. They’re wrought, fraught with repetition and open-handed slaps and biting – not just on Helen’s part – it is at times amusing without necessarily meaning to be and can even be described as abusive but it is a means to an end. Anne is determined to teach the ‘problem child’, make her unlearn all those awful habits her family have ignored even encouraged, and submit to learning.

While there is the occasional diegetic sound – a pair of heavy boots smacking against the wooden floor as the girl thrashes about during a tantrum or the smashing of plates – scenes between the two leads are largely silent, only occasionally punctuated lovingly by Laurence Rosenthal’s melodic soundtrack and the instrumental leitmotif of the song ‘Mockingbird’. Aram Avakian’s editing is flawless and Ernesto Caparrós cinematography stunning under Penn’s directorial eye. Yes, it is staged and the camera tends to be static more often than not but it works.

Holding all of this together are two extraordinary performances, supported ably by Swenson, Jory and Andrew Prine (as Helen’s older half-brother James). Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke are superb together and it is more than easy to see why they both won the critic’s favour and countless awards for these roles – so ingrained in her career was The Miracle Worker that Duke would not only play the Sullivan role on TV in 1979 (opposite Melissa Gilbert) but would go onto direct a run of the play in Washington during 2011. You root for both teacher and pupil throughout and by the breath-taking and cathartic ending, you love them.

Fact has been blurred somewhat, and some truths left out altogether, however, it isn’t terribly important. There is the question of whether this film could be made in this day and age without severe backlash (one tends to think not in the wake of ‘woke’). Yet, even without knowing Helen and Anne’s real history; the grit, determination and sheer awe-inspiring narrative and gutsy performances on display here are more than enough for an audience to invest in.

Disc Extras

The film has now been restored in 1080p from a high definition digital transfer by Eureka Entertainment, as part of their Classics range and is released, available on Blu-ray for the first time, this week.

The disc restoration is evident especially when original footage is viewed via the theatrical trailer (2:21). The clean-up is very good, scratches are minimal, there is still some grain visible but extreme close-ups are crystal clear serving both women’s framing, Bancroft’s pores often visible and Duke’s child-like open face and vacant eyes transfixing (the resemblance between the 16-year-old actress and her eldest son Sean is striking).

Extras are kept to a minimum on this release when compared to some of Eureka’s other releases. However, in addition to the theatrical trailer there is an audio essay provided by critic and author Amy Simmons (11:14), who not only places the picture within historical context but also discusses the thematics of Arthur Penn’s oeuvre. It’s an interesting albeit short essay played over a slide show of stills (one can’t help but feel an extended version would have made an excellent commentary for the entire film). However, the film and its performances make up for any lack some may feel.

Accompanying the disc is a collector’s booklet featuring new essays by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and film critic/author Richard Combs.

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Review

The Barbizon – Book Review

It was the inspiration for The Griffith Hotel in the unfairly axed-too-soon Agent Carter, fictionalised as The Amazon in The Bell Jar not long after the novel’s author Sylvia Plath moved out, and is the focus of Paulina Bren’s new book. The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free is a fascinating account of the glamorous and not-so-glam social history of the female-only hotel, located at 140 East 63rd Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was the place newly liberated women stayed whether seeking refuge or providing them with a room of one’s own as they pursued careers in the arts.

Built in 1927, The Barbizon housed thousands of women until 1981 when the first man was checked in, and is credited with granting autonomy to many – including the likes of Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Edith Bouvier Beale (that’s Little Edie to you if you’ve seen Grey Gardens), Cloris Leachman, Joan Didion, Ali McGraw, Phylicia Rashad, and even ‘unsinkable’ Molly Brown back in 1931. Its most famous resident was probably Plath who spent her tenure as one of the guest editors* of Mademoiselle magazine (also fictionalised as ‘Ladies Day’ in The Bell Jar). The publication was headed by the imposing Betsy Talbot Blackwell (BTB) who ruled with a fierce head beneath a pillbox hat and within a perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke, granting opportunities for *The Millies each of whom were afforded a tiny boudoir bedecked in chintz and florals, all for a reduced rate per week. Also in residence were girls and women who attended the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School (they lived on the 16th and 17th floors) and those signed up with Ford or Powers Modelling Agencies. Like one big sorority.

Bren, over nine chapters, breathes life back into the lobby and corridors of the hotel which became a condominium in 2005 (Barbizon 63) and houses Ricky Gervais among others. Her vibrant and evocative prose really gives a sense of the period as these women found financial independence, a place in an ever-changing world or even a bar stool over at Malachy’s bar – which allowed them to drink and eat alone at the bar (unheard of at the time) without hassle from men. God bless Malachy McCourt. Themes touch on surviving Prohibition, the Depression, McCarthyism, and briefly on Civil Rights – Barbara Chase was the first Black woman/resident to intern for Mademoiselle in 1956. Most interestingly is how Bren addresses the loneliness, mental health issues, and suicide attempts (and successes) of some of the residents – through first-person accounts and independent research – which only serve to add poignancy and depth.

By the last chapter, this pain takes on a greater meaning. Once the hotel ceased to exist and work began creating the condos, several of the older women fought to keep their homes, citing their (ancient) leases which allowed them to remain living there amidst the gutting and renovations. Work continued and was completed on all floors except the one where these women resided, everything around them was updated but their doors, walls, rooms and décor were preserved like a time capsule. Although, sadly, there is nowhere near as much detail about these old broads who were determined to stay put.

The Barbizon is a compelling read, beautifully researched and highly recommended to anyone interested in the period or any of the individual women covered in the text. It’s a deeply resonant book which ends with pangs of bitter irony. Once a sanctuary promoted as selling freedom to women, the bricks and mortar ended up imprisoning a fair few. Or in the case of Sylvia Path, it gave a purpose – inspiration for her novel masterpiece – a place to belong for a time or place where the unravelling began before the world became too much.