Movie Review: A “failed” artist finds fame as a Finnish cartoonist — “Tove”

“Tove” is an utterly conventional biopic about a seriously unconventional woman.

Tove Jansson was a Swedish-speaking Finnish writer, painter, cartoonist and caricaturist, one of the country’s most celebrated artists thanks to the pan-European fame her “Moomin” children’s books and comic strips generated.

She was a free spirit who lampooned Hitler during World War II, when Finland was allied with Nazi Germany in fighting Soviet Russia. She danced like there was no one else there, carried on affairs with married men and women and gained a little respect as a painter of frescoes and public art before her little Smurfish cartoons about fantasy trolls, their lives and adventures, made her reputation.

All of which is lightly-covered in Zaida Bergroth’s by-the-book film, based on screenwriter Eeva Putro’s not-quite-academically-dry screen depiction of her life.

As in most screen biographies, we’re treated to the Waypoints of a Life, with a little spark here and there, little wit and lots of scribbling. Because that’s what artists do in screen biographies of artists.

See Tove, played with a dash of spunk (and only a dash) by Alma Pöysti, who once voiced a “Moomins” animated film, hook up with married Socialist member of parliament and newspaper publisher Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney). They meet at a party, and before Atos has finished describing his “freedom” and open marriage, Tove’s suggested “Meet you in the sauna,” (in Swedish and Finnish, with English subtitles).

See her stern, “focused” sculptor father (Robert Enckell) give her endless variations of his “Your time and talent are misspent,” lecture.

Listen to Tove turn a rich patron’s condescension around on him — “My father always said we should feel sorry for the (non-artistic)…I always say, that without the bourgeoisie, we’d have no work at all.”

Watch as the rich, patronizing Helsinki mayor’s wife/theater director, Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen) offers her a “commission.” It’s to draw up a cute party invitation note. Catch Vivica’s “Have you ever kissed a woman?” come-on.

Check out the look on smitten Atos’ face when Tove tells him, poetically, that “I’ve found a new room, in the house of the soul,” the loveliest way of breaking the “I’m bisexual, but probably a lesbian” news ever.

The waypoints include swapping paintings for rent, that first suggestion that she do a kiddie comic out of these quirky sketches, using the oddball character names and words she’s invented for her imaginary Moominworld — “Mymble, Thingumy, Bob.”

It’s all presented and acted sympathetically if entirely too perfunctorily to be moving, inspiring, amusing or despairing.

That’s not saying that “Tove,” Finland’s submission for the Best International Feature Oscar (totally outclassed by the actual nominees) isn’t watchable.

But when your most moving moment is silent closing credits footage from the home movies from Tove’s later life (turned into a couple of Finnish documentaries), maybe you need to try again.

When “conventional” means that you show us one more version of the stern, disapproving dad revealing his “true” pride, after his death, when you see the scrapbook he kept of his daughter’s career, something we’ve seen in many a movie, most recently in “Dream Horse” just two weeks ago, maybe you need to make your movie fit your subject.

A “Tove” as adventurous artistically, socially, politically and sexually as the real Tove Jansson was, no mere “caricaturist” or “cartoonist,” would be something to see.

MPA Rating: unrated, adult sexual situations, smoking, drinking

Cast: Alma Pöysti, Krista Kosonen, Shanti Roney, Joanna Haartti and Robert Enckell

Credits: Directed by Zaida Bergroth, script by Eeva Putro. A Juno Films release.

Running time: 1:43

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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