(Finland / Sweden / Denmark / Germany / USA 2017)
Touko Valio Laaksonen, a.k.a. Tom of Finland, was extraordinary and unconventional. Dome Karukoski’s rather vanilla biopic Tom of Finland is neither.
With Aleksi Bardy’s screenplay, Karukoski lays out a good historical background of the life of the artist, whom Pekka Strang plays convincingly enough, at least until Tom’s later years. The story takes us through WWII, where Tom serves as a closeted solder in the Finnish army and catches the eye of his sargeant (Taisto Oksanen), into his postwar life in conservative Helsinki, where he works as an advertising illustrator, cruises public parks at night (and evades arrest), and sketches “dirty” homoerotic fetish doodles in his spare time. He shares an apartment with his homophobic sister (Jessica Grabowsky), which provides much of the dramatic tension in this story, especially when a cute boarder, dancer Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), moves in. Ultimately, the story leads to 1980s Los Angeles.
For a subject who really pushed the envelope — okay, he rammed it somewhere else altogether — and left his mark, Tom of Finland is a disappointingly conventional, even sappy biopic. The focus is on Tom’s personal struggle to live his life ‘out,’ which is a fine angle. Aside from a scene involving a Russian paratrooper (Siim Maaten) that apparently had a profund effect on Tom, however, Karukoski doesn’t delve deep enough to offer much insight; he seems to want to give an intimate picture but somehow stays at arm’s length from his subject. Too bad. His references are good but his approach is more documentarian or downright clinical. He skips huge chunks of time, which makes for awkward transitions in the film’s latter half. More frustratingly, he starts to raise some interesting points about art, conformity, AIDS, community, and longevity, but opts not to go there. Tom of Finland could have been a much more interesting film.
With Martin Bahne, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Werner Daehn, Jan Böhme, Seumas F. Sargent, Jakob Oftebro, Meri Nenonen, Haymon Maria Buttinger, Martin Bergmann, Niklas Hogner
Production: Helsinki-filmi, Anagram Väst, Fridthjof Film, Neutrinos Pictures, Film Väst, Fresco Film Services
Distribution: Finnkino (Finland), Protagonist Pictures, Cinemien (Netherlands), Kino MFA+ Filmdistribution (Germany), Lorber (USA), Palace Films (Australia), Peccadillo Pictures (UK), Rézo Films (2017) (France) (theatrical)
(Gene Siskel Film Center) C+