SIFF 2021 Review: Tove

Writers: Eeva Putro, Jarno Elonen

Actors: Alma Poysti, Krista Kosonen, Shanti Roney, Joanna Haarti, Kajsa Ernst, Robert Enckell, Eeva Putro, Jakob Ohrman

By Joan Amenn

Creative people don’t get to chose which of their works, if any, resonate with the public and maybe even give them a degree of fame. For Tove Jansson (Alma Poysti), her doodles of bulbous, pop-eyed creatures that she originally sketched in a bomb shelter during WWII led to prosperity and the adoration of children throughout Europe. As a dedicated painter and graphic artist, this was perhaps not the fate she would have hoped for. As a bisexual who increasingly identified as homosexual at a time and in a society where that was considered taboo, Tove also struggled for lasting happiness.

“Tove” (2020) is a beautifully photographed biopic with a solid cast that is perhaps a little light in the development of its script. While Helsinki of the 1940’s and 50’s looks like Narnia where it is always winter, the interior world of art galleries and the homes of Tove’s friends are warmly lit and inviting. It is especially interesting to note how the artist’s own studio evolves from a crumbling hovel to a comfortably bourgeois salon as her fame increases. Tove pays dearly for that comfort, as we see she is very much a self-made woman. Unfortunately, we don’t see much of her creations, the “Moomins” who she owed her economic security to. They do pop up in little drawings she absentmindedly pencils in on menus and envelopes until one day she is asked by a newspaper to create a comic strip for children based on her odd-looking critters. This leads to a theater production and books and lasting fame.

However, the film focuses less on her creative endeavors and more on her relationships, as many other films about female artists seem to do. We see Tove vacillate between her affection for a married member of Parliament, Atos Wirtanen (Shanty Roney) and a mysterious theater director who happens to be the daughter of the local mayor, Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen). Strangely, neither of these relationships were lasting but Tove’s true and enduring romantic partner, Tuulikki Pietila (Joanna Haartti) receives very little screen time. It’s as if the scriptwriters thought there was no drama to be found in long term happiness and opted to dwell on Tove’s heartbreak instead.

At the same time, Tove was a very accomplished painter who won several commissions for public works despite the film focusing on all of the government grants she was denied. It would have been nice to see more of her completed work although we do get a glimpse of a tantalizingly gorgeous mural she created for the Helsinki City Hall. Her father was a nationally recognized sculptor who, according to the film, disapproved of her painting style and perhaps her lifestyle too. Frustratingly, this relationship is not fleshed out enough nor is her attraction to Wirtanen. We learn she was active in opposing fascism but we do not know if politics is what brought the pair together.  There are too many scenes of drunken debauchery and too little insights into motivations that weigh down an otherwise excellent film. Alma Poysti is perfectly cast as the whimsical, sensitive and free-spirited Tove. She invites us to look beyond her goofy cartoon characters and appreciate the woman who was a fine artist and a gentle soul.  

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