Göteborg 2017: Tom of Finland

Tom of Finland spent much of his life hiding who he truly was; only recognised and admired by those in the gay community. While there have been books written, plays performed and a couple documentaries and films made about the life of Touko Laaksonen, it is thanks to Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Finland that this leading figure in the gay community is able to come to life again in his home country. It is more fitting, too, that the film officially is a part of Finland’s centenary year, a feat that only highlights the importance and effect of his artwork both locally and abroad.

The film closely the follows the life of Touko, played perfectly by Pekka Strang. He is withdrawn, private and pensive, having survived World War II but deeply haunted and troubled by his time served. Touko is a man we never get close to, and it is only through his relationships that his personality shines. He works and lives in the same place as his sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), as an art director at an advertising agency. In a country where homosexuality is illegal, Touko must keep his hobby to himself. He secretly starts drawing works that feature extravagantly muscled and beautifully handsome icons of masculinity, and the film does a remarkable job of connecting these images to real life people. For example, when Touko seeks out anonymous sex in a park, the police officers who beat his partner becomes one of the highly sexualised characters.

The film spends a great deal of time setting up Touko’s personal and hidden lifestyle, and a little under halfway through we are introduced to the man who will become his partner. Kaija brings a new roommate into their apartment, the handsome younger man Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), nicknamed Nipa. Kaija at first hopes for a romantic relationship with Nipa, but that is soon disappointed after a visit to the countryside to stay with the Laakonsen family. After establishing Touko and Nipa’s relationship, the film moves to Touko’s success; having him travel to the U.S and establish himself as ‘Tom of Finland’. His work starts to become published by erotic magazines and through that Tom meets Doug (Seumas Sargent), a shy young man who reinvents himself through Tom’s drawings and becomes his biggest fan, and his partner Jack (Jakob Oftebro). The last portion of the film shows the rise in AIDS and anti-homosexual attitudes in the USA, something of which Tom’s drawings is the blame for. Any chance of happiness and acceptance from the public is gone, though Tom will always have his fans.

Natural love

As with most contemporary Finnish films, it seems that a good portion of the decision-making and plot-driving sequences take place in nature. A country of lakes, it is by the lake that Touko and Nipa discover their love, and the opening shot of the film shows a group of naked men jump onto a frozen lake. When Touko seeks anonymous sex, he does so in a park, and many of the U.S. scenes take place by a pool in what seems to be the middle of nature. One of the recurring images of the film is a rabbit, used as an expression of love when Jack is dying in hospital of AIDS, and perhaps used in the same regard after Touko stabs and kills a Russian soldier during the war. Here homosexuality is described as natural, part of the environment, and nothing more than love.

A decorated life on the screen

For a man which such a decorated life, it’d be hard for any filmmaker to condense it to a feature-length. Tom of Finland runs just under two hours, and while the first half of the film beautifully sets up this person, the second half of the film rushes through his American success and downfall. The script, written by Karukoski and Aleksi Bardy, is ambitious; starting at the Second World War and ending at the 1980’s AIDS epidemic. While it can be said that this is the film’s greatest downfall, in the end, it’s not enough to deter from watching.

The film is beautifully shot and styled. The sets and costuming are fitting for the period, and there are recurring themes of colour throughout, particularly yellow, which Nipa loves but Touko describes as ‘sissy’. What’s amusing, though, is that much of what Touko wears contains mustardy yellows. The camera stays with Touko and one of his ‘characters’ appears throughout moments in his life, almost encouraging him to continue. This is a deeply personal and humanistic touch, and much credit is to be given to Karukoski for understanding this figure.

A touching and beautiful story

Overall, Tom of Finland is a beautifully crafted and important story of one of Finland’s major icons. After premiering at the Gothenburg Film Festival, Tom of Finland will premiere locally in Finland. It’ll be interesting to see the reception the film gets, finally bringing Tom home.

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CategoriesFinland Reviews
Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.