Whatever your expectations of Tom of Finland, it is sure to upend them. While much promotion has placed Touko Laaksonen’s erotic drawings emphatically front and centre, the film’s Touko keeps them sequestered for years, and it is largely his life rather than his art, at least initially, that forms Dome Karukoski’s subject.
Yet Tom of Finland is by no means a conventional or formulaic biopic. Karukoski’s eye for elegant yet brutalist compositions, characterised by a strength of line he shares with Laaksonen’s images, lends the film a fitting countercultural arthouse sensibility. The first half is slow-moving, yet progresses with considered deliberation. The film presents a non-chronological patchwork of non-sequitirs, from which the audience’s unsettled confusion blossoms gently into taut engagement with and committed empathy for Touko.
It’s all the more disappointing, then, that careful pacing slides clumsily into abrupt piecemeal segments of transatlantic action. This is, however, perhaps intended to reflect Laaksonen’s surprise at – as Tom of Finland has it – his sudden, reluctantly accepted status as the godfather of gay leather culture. In the discrepancies between Strang’s reserved Touka and the brash celebratory atmosphere of Tom of Finland’s dip into post-1970 American leather clubs, one gets the sense that a more interesting and maybe more contentious story remains untold.
The screenwriting team have a knack for revealing the story’s sharper edges yet hastily brushing them under the rug; the AIDS crisis is almost an afterthought servicing Touko’s ascent to fame, and his sister’s discomfort with his homosexuality is apparent yet never satisfyingly confronted.
Neither a box-ticking biopic nor the sexy romp some publicity implicitly promised, Tom of Finland is a wide-ranging and finely directed drama with opinions to air on Finnish social history and LGBT activism. Without structural stumbles and echoing silences these could have come through loud and clear.
CAST: Pekka Strang, Jakob Oftebro, Werner Daehn, Jimmy Shaw, Jessica Grabowsky
DIRECTOR: Dome Karukoski
WRITERS: Noam Andrews, Aleksi Bardy, Mark Alton Brown, Dome Karukoski, Susanna Luoto, Kauko Röyhkä, Mia Ylönen
SYNOPSIS: Touko Laaksonen, a decorated officer, returns home after a harrowing experience serving his country in World War II, but life in Finland during peacetime proves equally distressing. He finds refuge in his art, specializing in homoerotic drawings of muscular men. His work – made famous by his signature ‘Tom of Finland’ – became the emblem of a generation of men and fanned the flames of a gay revolution.