Real life of a car­toon in­no­va­tor

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - DON­ALD CLARKE

TOM OF FIN­LAND ★★★

Di­rected by Dome Karukoski Star­ring Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilka­nen, Jes­sica Grabowsky, Taisto Ok­sa­nen, Seu­mas Sar­gent, Jakob Ofte­bro, Nik­las Hogner Cert 18, QFT Belfast, 115mins

The car­toon­ish cre­ations of the Fin­nish artist Touko Laak­so­nen – square-jawed, mus­cle­bound men in uni­form or bondage gear armed with gi­gan­tic phal­luses – were once re­garded as porno­graphic. But even be­fore his death in 1991, the work of the wildly-in­flu­en­tial icono­g­ra­pher had found its way into main­stream gal­leries. It now fea­tures in Moma’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion in New York and has been cel­e­brated in a col­lec­tion of Fin­nish postal stamps.

View­ers should, ac­cord­ingly, not be sur­prised to learn that Dome Karukoski’s award-win­ning biopic is both re­spect­ful and re­spectable. The very pen­cil strokes that cre­ate Touko’s fetishised fan­tasies are taste­fully shot. The cra­dle-tograve plot­ting is hand­somely, con­ven­tion­ally staged.

Hav­ing grown up gay in ru­ral Fin­land, Laak­so­nen (Pekka Strang) finds some sex­ual re­lease while serv­ing in the mil­i­tary dur­ing the sec­ond World War. Dur­ing this pe­riod, his killing of a hand­some Rus­sian para­trooper – so Karu­loski’s film in­trigu­ingly pos­tu­lates – shapes and de­ter­mines a life­long love of men in uni­form. Said air­man haunts the rest of the film, al­though we never do tease out the dark im­plied psy­cho­log­i­cal ties be­tween his bru­tal stab­bing and the artist’s BDSM lean­ings.

Af­ter the war, Touko finds work as an il­lus­tra­tor along­side his fond but ho­mo­pho­bic sis­ter Kaija (Jes­sica Grabowsky) in an ad­ver­tis­ing agency. His sex­u­al­ity brings about sev­eral close calls with the au­thor­i­ties, even af­ter he finds love with his sis­ter’s former boyfriend Veli (Lauri Tilka­nen).

His art fi­nally brings him ad­mir­ers and into the lap of the hy­per­mas­cu­line gay scene en­joyed by Amer­i­cans dur­ing the 1970s. At this junc­ture the film comes a lit­tle un­stuck. Bud­getary con­straints tell: Amer­ica has sel­dom looked less like Amer­ica than it does here. The tem­po­ral leaps, too, are some­times clum­sily han­dled. Aleksi Bardy’s rather on-the-nose script in­tro­duces Aids with a phone call from Touko’s LA-based pa­tron, Doug (Seu­mas Sar­gent): “They are blam­ing us for the virus.”

De­spite these third-act fum­bles, Karukoski’s drama re­mains a care­fully ob­served and fas­ci­nat­ing chron­i­cle of 20th-cen­tury in­sti­tu­tion­alised ho­mo­pho­bia and var­i­ous un­der­ground sub­cul­tures.

Pekka Strang (right) as Touko Laak­so­nen

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