‘Tove’ Review: The Life of a Sharp Illustrator in Soft Focus

This biopic examines the creator of the Moomins, Tove Jansson, but it skimps on artistic insight in favor of unsatisfying romances.

By Teo Bugbee

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The biopic “Tove” examines the early life of Tove Jansson, the queer artist who created the children’s fantasy series, the Moomins. The Moomins were a visually and narratively original concept, a gentle family of hippopotamus-shaped trolls who lived with their friends in a valley, where all pursued adventure and mischief. The series is by turns satirical, melancholic and fantastic, and the Moomins made Jansson a beloved literary figure. How disappointing then that “Tove” should be stuffy in style and rather incurious about how Jansson either developed or implemented her unique artistic sensibility.

The biopic begins in Helsinki during World War, II when Jansson (Alma Poysti) was a young painter, struggling to win grant money and the approval of her sculptor father. Though her paintings receive little acknowledgment, her illustrations are noticed first by the leftist philosopher Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney), and then by the bourgeois theater director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen), both of whom become involved in long-term affairs with Jansson. Most of the movie is a tug-of-war between the passion that Jansson feels for the unfaithful Vivica, and the comfort she receives from the reliable Atos.

The romantic turmoil unfortunately leaves little screentime for illustration, painting, writing or the other artistic projects that Jansson pursued in her lifetime.

The director, Zaida Bergroth, offers glimpses of Jansson at work, but shots of her sketchbooks pass in flashes, offering only a cursory acknowledgment that the drawing was done amid the flim-flam of half-hearted romances. The soft-focus cinematography is beautiful but drippy, and this general tendency toward mushy melodramatics presents an unflattering contrast to the sharp-lined vivacity that Jansson brought to the page.

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. In theaters.

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