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Review: Tove (Dir. Zaida Bergroth, 2020)

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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