They may not have reached the giddy heights of other comic strips, but the Moomins have had a remarkable longevity since they first appeared in the late 1940s. They were created by Tove Jansson, whose early career is brought to life in Zaida Bergroth’s Tove, essentially a conventional portrait of an artist who danced to her own tune.
It’s a motif which bookends the film. As it opens we see Tove (as played by Alma Poysti) dancing with abandon to her favourite music from the 40s, and the film ends with footage of Tove herself in her garden at home, letting rip with the same celebratory inhibition. It’s a fitting image for her independent spirit, but her life wasn’t always so joyful. The film depicts the shadow cast by her father, a renowned sculptor in Finland, who constantly belittled her artistic efforts: the main relationships in her life, with left-wing politician Atos Witranen (Shanti Roney) and theatre director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen), who breaks her heart: and Tove’s sense of being an outsider in the world of wealth and privilege that essentially funds the artistic community.
Threading in and out of her personal story are the Moomins themselves, their words voiced by Tove and, more often than not, providing a commentary on her life at the time. They make their first appearance as she shelters underground from the thundering of the bombs overhead during World War II. Her sketches of the kind, loving hippo-like trolls are an escape from the devastation around her and, when they first appear in print, have a similarly soothing effect on Finnish children in the post-war years. To please her father, she also continued with her painting and her work was regularly exhibited, but it was her cartoon strip that not only made her name – it made her money as well. It wasn’t a success that always satisfied.
Her relationships with Atos and Vivica form the backbone of the film, depicting a woman who both prized honesty and paid the price for it. She has a directness that would have been frowned upon by society at the time, taking the initiative with the married Atos, while her on-off affair with Vivica has to take place in the shadows. Bergroth chooses to portray it in much the same way, with discretion and delicacy instead of the directness we’ve become accustomed to. And it extends to Tove’s realisation that the love of her life isn’t the person she thought she was, the crushing feeling that goes with knowing their relationship is – and always will be – unequal.
While Roney is endearingly bashful as Atos and Kosonen full of the confidence and allure that Tove – and many others – finds so attractive, Poysti gives an exemplary performance as the independent, vulnerable yet determined Tove. The film that bears her name has charm, warmth and a strong sense of period, with a beautifully chosen period soundtrack from the comfortingly familiar tones Glenn Miller and Edith Piaf.
Drama, Biopic | Cert: tbc | BFI Flare, 17 – 28 March 2021 | Dir. Zaida Bergroth | Alma Poysti, Shanti Roney and Krista Kosonen.