A quietly blazing and passionate performance by Alma Pöysti brings the bisexual Finnish artist and Moomins creator Tove Jansson to life in this emotional but low-key drama directed by Zaida Bergroth. Covering a decade or so of Jansson’s life from the mid 1940s, it tells of her first madly-in-love relationship with a woman and the story of how her doodles on scraps of paper became a worldwide sensation. Where biopics often end up with a cardboard-tasting blandness, the focus on Jansson’s interior world gives this film moments that really come to life.
It begins with Jansson as a penniless artist in her 20s, with steady blue eyes and bluntly cropped short blond hair. Not for the first time she is swallowing the disappointment of being passed over for a government grant to support her painting – mostly traditional still lifes and portraits. She jokes to friends that she is living in the bleak shadow of her famous sculptor father Viktor Jansson (Robert Enckell). At home their family life is bohemian, but it’s clear that Viktor is an authority-wielding paterfamilias. “That’s not art,” he says dismissively of Jansson’s whimsical sketches of hippo-like trolls. She moves out and rents a freezing, unheated studio.
Shown dancing with a let-yourself-go abandon, as if in a mosh pit, Jansson is the possessor of a wild streak and is a bit of an emotional daredevil. First she has an affair with a married male politician (Shanti Roney), then she dumps him for rich mayor’s daughter Vivica (Krista Kosonen), a striking, angular beauty. Fans will spot that the pair call each other Thingumy and Bob – who became Moomins characters – and develop their own secret language. It’s Vivica who sees the originality in the Moomins drawings; Jansson, perhaps internalising her father’s criticism, calls them “scrawls”.
It’s a sign of how far this film is doing biopic differently that it doesn’t leave out Jansson’s ambivalence about the Moomins; she still feels like a failed artist. It feels less like a film that casts a historical figure in cinematic plaster than the story of a woman finding her artistic voice – though so terribly even-handed it’s somewhat undramatic in places.
• Tove is released on 9 July in cinemas.