TOVE (TIFF20) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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I grew up in a tiny working-class town that straddled the outer western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia and the countryside. My school had at maximum only 14 students, and we certainly were not big enough to have our own library; instead, once a fortnight, a small truck laden with the few worn-out classics the state education department could afford would visit, and we could choose one book to take home and read. For about eight months, that book for me was Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll.

First published in English in 1950, as what can best be described as a culturally isolated child, my mind was simply blown – the concept of a Finn and Finland itself was just as wondrous, just as fantastic, and just as abstract to me as that of the Moomins themselves, these strange beautiful creatures upon which Jansson established her iconic status as one of the most beloved and influential children’s book authors and illustrators of all time. Peculiar white hippopotamus shaped beings, the world of the Moomins is a hermetically sealed one driven by pure imagination whose impact is as strong today as it was when they were first unleashed upon the world in 1945. Since then, they have endured as an international phenomenon, with their popularity spanning from London to Tokyo, with even a Moomin theme park in south-west Finland.

As the title suggests, with her fifth feature film Tove, director Zaida Bergroth turns her attention to a significant transitional moment in the Moomin creator’s life. Playing as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Industry Selects screenings, the film is bookended by the figure of Tove dancing euphorically by herself; first is actor Alma Pöysti in the title role as she leaps and bounces with glee, the film ending with home movie footage of the real Jansson herself dancing, in footage possibly taken by her life partner Tuulikki Pietilä. Tove follows the artist’s journey not just of sexual awakening as she comes out and discovers her attraction to women, but just as importantly, finds her on the path to accepting the kind of artist she really is and the kind of work she wishes to make.

The film begins in Helsinki in 1944 during the so-called “great raids”, an unrelenting military attack on Finland by the Soviet Union – with the support of Britain and America – in the hope of encouraging the country to sever its links to Germany. Tove huddles with a group of others as the bombs fall, distracting herself with the manic pencil scratchings in her notebook as we see the first outlines of her famous Moomintrolls. Walking through the rubble, she is lost in narrative as she creates the fantastic land that her beautiful creatures will inhabit.

Throughout much of the film, the Moomins are something that Tove largely draws in private; an indulgence, a passion, but not ‘real’ art. This her father Viktor (Robert Enckell), a famous and admired abstract sculptor, has made explicit; he wants his daughter to be a proper artist, a painter. So Tove paints, desperate for both the approval of her father and just as much, in order to discover through the work who she really is.

That discovery comes on a more personal level through a number of romantic encounters our protagonist experiences throughout the film’s runtime. At first it’s a romance with the kind Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney), but when Tove meets theater maven and mayor’s daughter Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen), her life is radically altered when she experiences her first true, deep, passionate love affair. Working through the emotional highs and lows of her relationship with both Atos and Vivica, through an acceptance of her true artistic calling – and the Moomins stunning international success – Tove finds peace with herself, her identity and discovers what true love really is.

Brought to life by gorgeous period production design, the wild bohemian world of mid-century Helsinki bursts with as much energy as Tove herself. “I believe life is a wonderful adventure” she exclaims early in the film, and despite heartbreak and loss, she never loses that hunger and enthusiasm, even when things are at their lowest.

Driven by a compelling performance by Alma Pöysti as Moominmamma Tove herself, while not a particularly radical biopic in terms of style and structure, Tove is a loving portrait of an international icon who learns the truth about art, authenticity and love during this period when the Moomins would shift beyond her inner life and become even today deeply loved pop cultural icons.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic for ABC Radio in Australia, She has written for Film International, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Peter Strickland, and Alice in Wonderland in film. She frequently contributes commentaries, liner notes and video essays to home entertainment releases from companies such as Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Eureka Entertainment, Second Sight and Severin Films. She is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).