Director Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Finland is Finland’s entry into the 2018 Academy Awards and all of the film’s participants know what they are doing.
But what is perhaps most surprising about this story of Touko Laaksonen, the decorated World War Two officer-turned-infamous queer illustrator, is how tame it feels, almost genteel. The film allows everyone, in the way PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre does, to settle in for a good ride, allowing the story to transport them to another place and time in that familiar costume drama way.
Quite an achievement considering the main character is a gay man having illicit public sex living in a repressive, ice-cold country. Not to mention that his way of coping is to draw provocative, overtly sexual man-on-man imagery that, should it be discovered, would get him tossed into prison.
Still, even within its traditional three-act structure cocoon, there is much that is not your grandparent’s common foray into international cinema. When was the last time you heard dialogue like this:
“My cock is the boss.”
“Yellow curtains are for sissies.”
“It seems Finland has bigger cocks.”
Yet the script also makes the most of subtext, in a way many films set in contemporary times do not, with characters confessing their feelings as easily as posting to Facebook. In Tom, conversations take place in Europe of the 1940s and 50s when even two women kissing, a character declares, is illegal. Therefore, choice morsels of sexual metaphor such as these greet our ears:
“I’m here for the pheasant hunting.”
“I shined my boots.”
“You’ll have to come over for poker.”
Karukoski, 40, who is straight, has made six feature films prior to Tom of Finland – and is currently shooting the new film about Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien – includes much poetry in telling Touko/Tom’s story.
Numerous visual metaphors raise the picture above the level of a standard biopic.
There is a moment when a relationship ends. Rather than giving us a soap opera bedside confession, we are shown two pieces of ice breaking apart on the surface of a pond. Beautiful. And earlier in the film those “sissy” yellow curtains figure into the tale in such a tender way, I’m not sure I’ll ever look at curtains the same way again.
Pekka Strang, who is not gay, plays Touko with a quiet, graceful power that is completely believable. He finds the soul of the main character, communicating his struggles without melodrama. His Touko, though conflicted, hurt and brutalized, is without shame.
There’s a scene where a visit to the men’s room, promising a sexual encounter, goes south unexpectedly. A security guard says he’ll ban him from the club for a month, yet Touko replies, “Why don’t you make it for life?” While the next scene shows Touko in bed, clearly depressed by his status in Finnish society, he doesn’t allow prejudice and discrimination to keep him down. In phone interviews with Karukoski and Strang, both said they see Touko as a hero for this reason. He fought back, not just as a war hero, but also as an artist.
Supporting performances are also terrific. Jessica Grabowsky, as Touko’s sister Kaija, and Lauri Tilkanen, as Nipa, one of Touko’s sexual conquests and eventually his lover, stand out. Poor Kaija, a looker of a gal behind her glasses, she just doesn’t believe it; a talented artist, she doesn’t allow praise. Always struggling to live life to the fullest, Grabowsky allows us to feel pity for Kaija without hating her. In her most poignant moment, Kaija rolls down a grassy knoll hoping her lover will follow. Allowing herself a moment of joy, she giggles, feeling the midsummer sun on her skin before realizing the truth. Grabowsky’s choices are, like Strang’s, quiet, still and heartfelt.
Tilkanen’s Nipa is Touko and Kaija’s object of desire. It’s easy to see why. Not just handsome and well dressed in now bygone European fashion, he’s gentle and curious, kissable and naughty, a love interest born. Tilkanen invites us to consider how we would approach seducing him. How would we ask him to dance, take a walk in the forest, or make love in a stable – this latter a setting Tom of Finland used in one of his more famous drawings.
The romantic chemistry Strang and Tilkanen create is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film. Both actors are straight. In a phone call Strang told me how they approached the love scenes. “We decided, just before shooting, let’s just relax and look at each other deep into the eyes and feel love for each other,” he said. “It’s always nervous doing sex scenes. The biggest difference between kissing a man and [kissing] a woman is that men tend to have a bit more hair on the upper lip.”
The cinematography and production design are worth mentioning. When the film shows Finland, we are bogged down in oppressive, Nordic white light. We almost cannot breathe. It’s beautiful, but ominous. When the story moves to California, no surprise, the cinematography explodes into yellow, gold and green. The LA sunshine saturates our senses and we understand: America means freedom, sexual and otherwise.
Settings are most impressive in the Finnish scenes. Two particular exterior shots of stunning mid-century modern Nordic architecture made me want to time travel. And both the inside of a theatre, its Scandinavian blonde wood walls beckoning, and Touko’s second apartment, with high ceilings and modern art, helped me relate to the characters.
Tom of Finland opens Friday, October 20 at the Nuart (11272 Santa Monica Blvd just west of the 405). Lead actor Pekka Strang will be in attendance for a Q&A after the 7pm screening, as will members of the Tom of Finland Foundation, who were instrumental in the film’s production. Running Time: 114 Minutes/ Language: Finnish With English Subtitles
Advance tickets can be purchased online at landmarktheatres.com