TOM OF FINLAND
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: Dome Karukoski
Written by: Aleksi Bardy based on a story by Aleksi Bardy and Dome Karukoski
Cast: Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilkanen, Jessica Grabowsky, Taisto Oksanen, Seumas Sargent, Niklas Hogner, Jakob Oftebro, Kari Hietalahti
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/7/17
Opens: October 13, 2017
Given that Norway and Denmark were invaded and occupied by Germany while Sweden maintained its neutrality during World War 2, it may strike some as strange that Finland, a country that is geographically part of Scandinavia (at least its northern part), had actually allied itself with Germany in part because of its hostility to Russia. What’s more its language is quite different from Norwegian and Danish, as Finnish is related to Hungarian and Estonian. With “Tom of Finland,” director Dome Karukoski, adapting a story of his own together with Aleksi Bardy, takes a great many steps thematically from his 2014 film “The Grump.” The title grump is a man who thinks that everything in the past was better than conditions are now. By contrast, Touko Laaksonen, who is to become Tom of Finland, was a soldier in World War 2 who returns to his home only to find that gay people like him are persecuted by the police. Decades later he is to become a hero to the gay community and presumably who straights who support efforts toward social equality. As the tagline of the film states, “Elokuva rohkeudesta, rakkaudesta ja vapaudesta,” or, “A film of courage, love, and freedom.” Things for Tom are a great deal better in his latter years than they had ever been previously.
As played by Pekka Strang, Touka is seen over a fifty-year span which opens with his service in the war against the Russians. There he first becomes aware that his sexual desires are directed toward other man. The glances he throws to some others are sometimes returned, his come hither looks reciprocated occasionally. When he returns, he shares a home with his homophobic sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky). Both work in the same company advertising company where he gains plaudits from his boss for his excellent sketches. In one scene, he selects a man and a woman to sit together and act as though electricity were passing between them. Photographing the duo, he quickly translates the picture to paper.
When Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), a strikingly handsome closeted gay man signs on with Kaija and Touko as a lodger, the two men become a couple, encouraging Tom to produce ever-more openly gay sketches including not only men with muscles but also with huge appendages. These drawings show muscles so exaggerated that one may wonder whether he is actually subverting a stereotype in the minds of straights. The sketches make their way to Los Angeles where he is mentored and then patronized by Doug (Seumas Sargent). Ultimately he will design 3500 of these for an exhibition in the States, though a few of the sketches show men in World War two German uniforms, making some believe that he is pro-Nazi. Tom looks impressed enough with the warm, gay-accepted state of California perhaps to regret that he was not American. Most impressive to him and to us in the audience is a scene of police running to Doug’s swimming pool during a party and, instead of making arrests, they simply want to know whether anyone had seen a bank robber they are chasing.
The momentum toward gay acceptance here in America takes a step back as AIDS infects thousands, but despite homophobic picketing, the action builds to an uplifting climax (so to speak). This biopic is thoroughly entertaining, giving the straight world a look at a hero who is well known to the gay community here and in Europe. The ensemble performances are believable, though a fair chunk of years had to be ignored to fit the movie’s span of just under two hours. The film is handsomely photographed by Lasse Frank in Sweden, Germany and Spain.
“Tom of Finland” is Finland’s entry to our Oscar competition. In Finnish and English with a touch of German; English subtitles.
Unrated. 116 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
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