Tove is a biopic of the Finnish artist Tove Jansson who, most famously, created the Moomins, that gentle family of hippo-like trolls with the soft, velvety bellies which I remember reading about as a child when I was laid up with chicken pox. (The collector’s editions published by Sort of Books have restored the original artwork, are dazzling, and will take you right back, minus all that Calamine.)
Biopics of artists are often more miss than hit. I’m still recovering from that Jackson Pollock one where he completes his first action painting and is told: ‘You’ve done it, Jackson! You’ve cracked it wide open!’ But this avoids the usual pitfalls, as it is more about capturing her spirit rather than the creative process and it’s beautifully made, beautifully performed, and if you didn’t love Tove already you will now. She was always just so blazingly herself.
The film is directed by Zaida Bergroth, written by Eeva Putro, and stars Alma Poysti, who actually resembles Tove — the name is pronounced Tor-vey, by the way; it does not rhyme with ‘cove’ — and is mesmerising throughout. This isn’t a cradle-to-grave narrative. Instead, it focuses on her life from wartime through to the 1950s which, personally and professionally, paved the way for all that was to follow. Its opening prologue shows us Tove dancing, wildly. Not with anyone. Just by herself. She is vital, energetic, can abandon herself to the moment. We understand immediately: this woman is all life force. The dancing becomes the film’s leitmotif and you won’t tire of it, I promise.
She is, at this point, still living at home with her parents in Helsinki. Her mother is a graphic artist and illustrator (played by Kajsa Ernst) while her stern father is the renowned sculptor Viktor Jansson (Robert Enckell). She is already doodling Moomins and her father is not impressed. ‘It’s not art,’ he hisses. (She will, of course, become far more famous than him, ha ha!) That said, she doesn’t consider it art either. At this point, she is intent on becoming a painter. She is absolutely dedicated to that. ‘You’re not your paintings,’ someone tells her at her first exhibition. ‘Oh, but I am,’ she retorts.
She moves into her own apartment with no running water and no electricity and bombed-out windows which allow the snow to blow in. She is poor and cold but doesn’t care so long as she is free and can enjoy trysts with her married lover, the socialist journalist and politician Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney). There is no begging him to leave his wife. She is happy to carry on as is. ‘I believe life is a wonderful adventure and one should explore all its twists and turns,’ she says when she first seduces him in a sauna. But then she is introduced to Vivica (Krista Kosonen), the married, local mayor’s daughter and a theatre-maker, and falls head over heels in love. They embark on an electrifying affair. But will Tove’s love be reciprocated?
This is tormenting for Tove, but discovering she’s bisexual, if not a lesbian, is not — ‘I have gone to the spook side,’ she once wrote. It’s no big deal. She will go wherever her passion takes her. As she balances her love affairs, and frets about her work, a picture builds up of someone who is sweet and fun and sexy but also deadly serious and intense. Meanwhile, Bergroth keeps it pacey and Tove is never explained, which is a relief. There’s no: ‘You cracked it wide open, Tove!’. And as one of the most expensive films ever made in Finland, it’s a wonderfully handsome production. Exquisite interiors, particularly her apartment, and exquisite clothes (particularly Vivica’s). Lastly, stay for the credits. To see Tove, the actual Tove, do that dancing for real. It’s great.