Tom of Finland ~ A Non-Spoiler Review

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Photo montage of scenes from Tom of Finland. Central image is the theatrical poster for the film

🇫🇮 TOM OF FINLAND 🇫🇮

Tom of Finland (2017) is a biographical feature film available on BFI Player, Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV U.K.; Criterion and Apple TV USA & Canada; Kanopy, Vudu, Amazon USA; Binge, Stan, Fetch, AppleTV Aus. 1 hr 57 min. Cert 18 U.K.

Premise:

“Award-winning filmmaker Dome Karukoski brings to screen the life and work of artist Touko Valio Laaksonen (aka Tom of Finland), one of the most influential and celebrated figures of twentieth-century gay culture.” IMDb

Cast:

Pekka Strang as Tom
Lauri Tilkanen as Veli
Jessica Grabowsky as Kaija
Seamas F. Sargent as Doug
Taisto Oksanen as Alijoki
Jakob Oftebro as Jack
Niklas Hogner as Kake
Christian Sandström as Kari
Anders Sanzén as Mikael Berg
Þorsteinn Bachmann as Editor
Werner Daehn as Müller
Martin Bergman as German Officer
Siim Maaten as Russian Paratrooper

German-language poster for Tom of Finland

Crew:

Writers: Aleksi Brady, Dome Karukoski
Director: Dome Karukoski
Cinematographer: Lasse Frank Johannessen
Editor: Harri Ylönen
Composer: Lasse Enersen, Hildur Guðnadóttir
Costume: Anna Vilppunen
Production Design: Christian Olander

French-language poster for Tom of Finland

Notes:

Tom of Finland was the Finnish entry for the Foreign Language Film Competition at the 2018 Academy Awards.

Filming locations included:
Haga, Gothenburg, Västra Götalands Iän, Sweden
Neukölln, Berlin, Germany
Madrid, Spain
Sea Horse, Kapteeninkatu, Uklanlinna, Helsinki, Finland
Kaivopuisto, Helsinki, Finland

Finnish-language poster for Tom of Finland

Review:

I had absolutely no idea about any of the background story or who the man known as “Tom of Finland” was before I watched this film. The main attraction for me was that it features the Finnish actor Lauri Tilkanen who is best known, certainly outside Finland, for his role as Sakari Nurmi in the hit show Deadwind (Karppi). What did I make of this film about the life of the gay icon Touko Valio Laaksonen?

Pekka Strang as Tom in a scene from Tom of Finland

The way that “Tom’s” life is shown during the war (an “it’s complicated” affair for Finland) where all meetings of homosexuals were brief surreptitious encounters is effectively portrayed. It is during this time we see him first meet Veli (Lauri Tilkanen) in an introductory reveal where he is visually stunning. Much later on, after the war, they meet again, and for a time play a one-sided game of denial. It is also during this period of war that Tom has to kill a Russian paratrooper and this is subsequently shown to haunt (and yet inspire?) him throughout his life. It is made very clear to us that he is suffering from PTSD when he returns from combat.

Pekka Strang as Tom in a scene from Tom of Finland

I found Tom’s relationship with his sister, Kaija (played by Jessica Grabowsky) to be a fascinating one. Although it evolves from her expecting him to marry a nice girl and settle down (a kind of “you will grow out of this stage” mentality) she never really, truly accepts him for who he is. She has meals and socialises with them throughout their living together but seems to essentially still be in a form of denial about her brother being gay. [As a footnote, Tom and Veli were together 28 years but had an open relationship.]

This film is split into three parts, before America, during and after America with flashbacks and flash-forwards occurring throughout. These are a little disorienting at times but overall work well. I did find it difficult to keep tabs on the passage of time as there are no handy captions. Instead, we rely on a change in fashions, soundtrack and a degree of ageing via prosthetic makeup which works only to a certain extent.

The before America and during America are contrasted really well where we can see men holding hands in California whereas back in Finland that could get them arrested and imprisoned. We also have the contrast with Tom’s former commander who upon being arrested for holding a “party” at home is in an institution and wants to be “cured” so he and his wife can have children. Even more ironically it is this officer who saves Tom from imprisonment in Germany for having pornographic material (his own drawings). It is very sad to see how people had to hide their true selves or suffer severe consequences.

I loved certain parts of this movie. One of my favourite scenes is a flashback to the war when the men start singing in harmony – in truth, I would have liked this to have lasted longer. The rabbit in the hospital was touching and hilarious, in fact I (perhaps weirdly) found this one of the most affecting parts of the film. When Tom takes his work that is to be made into a book to an Orthodox Jewish printer it really lightened the mood.

I liked the cinematography and music in Tom of Finland and the editing is really good. The pacing suffers a little at times but overall the story kept moving forwards. The costuming is excellent (not being an expert on Finnish uniforms or fashions) and the locations and sets are great. The use of Tom’s work and scenes showing him drawing and then the figure of Kake in his full leathers appearing were excellent.

Pekka Strang as Tom (left):
Lauri Tilkanen as Veli (right) in a scene from Tom of Finland

I loved the performances in this. The central performance by Pekka Strang is both nuanced and compelling – a very fine achievement. Lauri Tilkanen is great (and almost surreally beautiful) as Veli. All the other performances from Finns, Norwegians, Swedes, Americans and Germans etc. (I may have missed a nationality or two out here) are excellent. Combined they help to hold this film together.

Pekka Strang as Tom (right) 
Lauri Tilkanen as Veli (left)
Jessica Grabowsky as Kaija (centre)

Personally, I found the section in California all a bit disappointing and I have been giving thought as to why. It is not the way that the promotion of Tom’s drawings is shown, or the exhibitions, costumes and other “events”, rather it is the character development of the two guys he meets there, Doug and Jack. I know that we are supposed to be really affected by a death from AIDS but somehow this just does not work as well as it should in this film. It fails to ratch up the emotion because we have not become invested enough in them, as people.

Jakob Oftebro (left) as Jack and Seamus F. Sargent (right) as Doug in a scene from Tom of Finland

The whole debate about any responsibility he might have for the spread of AIDS (which was very much a hot topic then) could have done with being explored in more detail.

Another death is more impactful but somehow still not as devastating to us, as viewers, as it needs to be. And it completely passed me by as to how long Tom and Veli were actually partners.

So what is my final verdict of Tom of Finland? I certainly know far more about him and his life than I did before watching and it was also a sad reminder of the life gay men had to lead in Finland back then. It was interesting to see his relationships and the impact his work had. This is a well-made film that is visually appealing but definitely not for the prudish or bigoted. Overall however I did come away feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the film as a whole.

Awards:

2 Wins and 11 Nominations

Wins:
Gothenburg Film Festival (2017) FIPRESCI Prize

“For the way the director and his team portray the life of such an iconic character, balancing a well done execution and story development, and taking us through the decades thanks to a clever use of music and production design.”

Jussi Film Awards (2018) Best Costume Design ~ Anna Vilppunen

Trailer:

Link to Review of Deadwind Season 1:

Deadwind S1: Netflix ~ A Non-Spoiler Review

Link to Review of Deadwind Season 2:

Deadwind Season 2: Netflix ~ A Spoiler Review

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