BFI Flare 2021

Tove review – Moomins creator biopic is a tender portrait of expression

This romantic drama, based on the life of Finnish artist Tove Jansson, is a beautiful meditation on the power of the authentic self

Ever since their enigmatic creator, Finnish author Tove Jansson, first published The Moomins and the Great Flood in 1945, the quiet, calming world of the Moomins has long provided sanctuary for millions of people all around the world.

The special nature of the Moomins is furthered by Jansson's standing as a queer artist, at a time when homosexuality was illegal in her native Finland. Zaida Bergroth's beautiful portrayal of the early years of Jansson's career and personal life in the final years of World War II, Tove, acts as a powerful depiction of navigating both yourself and your work in a world that wants to label and scrutinise every aspect of a person.

Tove's identity as a woman is inexplicably linked to her art, tied up in ways she is resistant to untangle herself from. Early in the film, as her father attempts to hide one of her more intimate self-portraits at a gallery, Tove – played by the fantastic Alma Pöysti – defiantly places it back on display.

Years later, Jansson moves into a small yet airy apartment partially spared by the violence of war. Much of the events take place in this sanctuary, which she covers with the art she wishes to be remembered for, while opting to hide her Moomin doodles from view. Bergroth and cinematographer Linda Wassberg shoot Tove on 16mm, providing a comforting atmosphere that's both nostalgic and reminiscent of the cosiness of Moominvalley.

Tove is a creature of contradictions – she lives both freely and under the pressure of expectations, as prone to sadness as she is to gleeful laughter, an aspect of Jansson that Bergroth makes a point to capture. The parallels in Tove's life both as an artist and queer woman are presented beautifully – she floats between two worlds, knowing which she is more drawn, yet always feeling uncertain. Her affair with prominent socialist Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney) takes place due to a need to feel wanted more than her genuine desire for the man.

This changes when she encounters the tall, alluring Vivica (Krista Kosonen), whose expression and interest in Tove and their subsequent affair causes a shift in both Tove's work and attitude. She announces to Atos that she is sleeping with a woman with no shame. The intensity of her love for Vivica is palpable – as terrifying for the audience as it is for these women. In an intense display of intimacy, the speech shared between the two soon becomes the speech of the Moomins, a secret language that only they can understand.

Despite what is expected of her, Tove leans towards a bohemian lifestyle, as displayed by her multiple lovers, though she is still driven by a need for her father to accept her work. In the most touching scene, Vivica notices drawings of the Moomins and expresses her admiration to Tove, who accuses her of teasing. No matter how much Vivica insists she's being genuine, Tove retorts that her paintings are the real work. It’s a display of intimacy and self-doubt so unique to being an artist that any creatives watching are likely to relate.

Tove is a tender portrayal of what it means to be open and vulnerable in both art and relationships, in a world that pushes against the authentic self. Its encouragement of self-expression and acceptance stands as a beautiful ode to a creator that touched the hearts of people around the world, and will continue to do so for years to come.

Tove was screened as part of the BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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