Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Pöysti is extraordinary." | Photo: Courtesy of Blue Finch Releasing

"In my family we feel sorry for people who are not artists," says Tove Jansson (Alma Pöysti) at one point in this film. She's standing up for a new acquaintance, Vivica (Krista Kosonen), against the latter's disapproving upper class father. It's different for Vivica, though. She can afford to dabble, whilst Tove relies on her art to survive. Everything Tove does has to be for real.

Zaida Bergroth's biopic about the Finnish artist, who is best known as the creator of the Moomins, was named Best Feature Film at last year's OutShine and was Finland's 2021 Oscar submission. Though narratively simple, it's a dazzling piece of work which perfectly captures the essence of the artist and both the necessity and cost of authenticity. Pöysti, who voiced Niiskuneiti in the Finnish language version of big screen adventure Moomins On The Riviera, is extraordinary in the lead and must surely be a contender next awards season (as the film is getting its US release now). She gives her all to a complicated character whose beguiling sweetness belies her strength, whose charming creations distract from far deeper artistic and personal passions.

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Centred on the artist's early adult years, the film explores her efforts to establish herself as more than just the daughter of a famous sculptor (Viktor 'Faffan' Jassen, played here by Robert Enckell), and to find a means of expressing herself through her paintings, whilst she dismisses her Moomin characters as just idle doodling. It also charts her relationships with married Socialist politician Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney) and with the aforementioned Vivica, whose passionate intensity overwhelms her but whose fickleness - or fear of commitment - threatens to break her heart.

Respectful representations of bisexuality are still rare in film and polyamory is only now beginning to be treated as a serious subject, though this film reminds us that neither is a recent phenomenon. Aspects of both are explored here in some detail, and provide the opportunity to explore nuances of romantic connection and social pressure in the lives of characters who are, at first glance, all bold and self-reliant individuals. Roney is sympathetic as a man who struggles to keep his feelings under control even as he recognises Tove's need for independence. Kosonen, whom viewers may recognise from Blade Runner 2049, brings a brittleness to her role that invites not sympathy but perhaps, from LGBTQ+ viewers, understanding. It's one thing to break conventions sexually, another to put one's heart on the line. Vivica is described as a dragon but there seem to be other reasons for her constant flight.

In the background lies the shadow of the Second World War, the darkness which artists at the time tried to drive back with positive and boldly progressive work. Our first glimpse of Moomins comes when Tove is doodling in a bomb shelter. Later, discussions of the Finnish surrender are relayed in the background, over the radio, as she works on a painting. In Paris, where Vivica spends time when she can, queer society is emerging from the ruins; partying hard is a way of trying to blot out the recent past. Most of the film takes place in Tove's two room apartment, which seems like a fortress built up against all that chaos, evolving over the years to signal the development of a more complex and mature personality. Windows along two sides of the studio suggest that she is always looking outwards but refusing to be distracted by the tide of events which consumes everybody else. It is her internal world that will enable her to make her mark.

This internal focus does not mean that the film risks being visually dull. Bergroth works beautifully with cinematographer Linda Wassberg to find fresh ways of framing the action; the camera is often on the move and Pöysti slips in and out of frame with lively ease. At times there seems to be something otherworldly about Tove, or something old; she is like a creature out of time, a fairy tale character navigating a world which she can never quite connect with, even when it opens up its arms to her. here is a lot of sadness but the film avoids the conventions of queer tragedy, keeping its focus on the interplay of personalities and gradually bearing its heroine towards more stable ground.

Anybody can recount the story of a life. Bergroth distils the essence of a person. It's the spirit of the thing that will speak to you, and if you give it your attention, this is a film you won't forget.

Editor's note: If this review has made you miss Tove's most famous creations, you'll be pleased to know that all the original Moomin TV series episodes are available on YouTube.

Reviewed on: 01 Jun 2021
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Tove packshot
A dramatisation of the life of Moomins creator Tove Jansson.
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Director: Zaida Bergroth

Writer: Eeva Putro

Starring: Alma Pöysti, Krista Kosonen, Shanti Roney, Joanna Haartti, Kajsa Ernst

Year: 2020

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Finland, Sweden


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