Sunday 21 March 2021

Tove (Zaida Bergroth, 2020)

For most of us, the name Tove Jansson will always be synonymous with the Moomins, those lovable Hippo-like trolls who have captured the imagination of so many children (and adults) via their adventures spanning nine books and countless comic strips.  In addition to their appearances in print, the Moomins are no stranger to the screen, and back in  2014 the excellent Moomins on the Riviera treated us to several rather unexpected sights, including Moominpappa nursing a raging hangover and Snorkmaiden in a bikini.  Moomins on the Riviera was a work that fully tapped into the slightly anarchic sense of mischief that was often lurking around the edges of the pages of the Moomins' escapades and, as this excellent new biopic proves, an impish sense of adventure was a key component in Jansson's life away from the page.  Tove Jansson was a bestselling author whom the general public knew very little about, and it is probably fair to say that many readers in the Anglophone world didn't even know if Jansson was male or female, much less what she looked like or how she lived.

Although not exactly a writer who shunned all publicity à la J. D. Salinger, it is fair to say that the Moomins were always the public face of Jansson, but as Tove—which screens at BFI Flare until March 28—proves, she led an interesting, full life, one that was by no means lacking in drama.  The film begins as WW2 is drawing to a close; once the conflict ends, Tove, now in her early thirties, is swept up in the new sense of optimism and freedom that is swirling through society, and she sets up in her own place where she spends her days honing her skills as a painter.  Tove's stern sculptor father is critical of his daughter, not so much because of the paintings she produces, but rather because of her unconventional approach to both life and work; her mother, on the other hand, is far more sympathetic.  Tove mixes with a bohemian circle, and open relationships are quite common among those she socialises with; it's not long before she enters into such an arrangement with Atos, a prominent member of parliament.  While both Tove and Atos seem quite content with this setup, a complication soon arrives in the form of the aristocratic Vivica, a theatre director who quickly captures Tove's heart.

While Tove is soon completely besotted by her new love, such devotion isn't reciprocated; the flighty Vivica thinks little of jetting off to Paris, and when Tove eagerly heads to the airport to meet the returning director, she's more than a little surprised to find that Vivica is accompanied by another woman.  Shaken but not completely undeterred, Tove puts on a brave face and persists with her relationship with Vivica, but there's a sense that the author is simply being toyed with and is just one of many women in Vivica's life.  A surprise (and not entirely unwelcome) marriage proposal from Atos ultimately brings its own complications, and it's clear that Tove still has some way to go if she is to achieve personal happiness.  Meanwhile, in career terms, things really start to pick up for both Tove and the Moomins, and the author signs a lengthy, lucrative contract to provide Moomin comic strips to London newspaper The Evening News.

Tove is a stylish and engaging work, one which features a superb turn from Alma Pöysti as the title character.  Pösyti, in her first starring role, delivers a well-judged performance as she deftly wraps the clearly sensitive (and occasionally troubled) Jansson in a puckish exterior.  It is hard not to feel the jolt of pain Tove experiences as she unexpectedly catches a glimpse of Vivica across a crowded Parisian café, especially when we can clearly see that she has far better options than chasing after the fickle theatre director.  Yet it is from her personal relationships—with friends, family, lovers—that we discover the inspiration for the various Moomin characters; like so many authors, Jansson used real-life encounters as part of the basis for her fiction.  With Tove, it feels as if numerous blanks have been filled in regarding the author—assuming we've ever given much thought to the Moomins' creator; for so many of us, this engrossing, intelligent film tells a story we didn't know we were waiting to hear.  

Darren Arnold

Images: kallerna [CC BY-SA 3.0] / BFI