Tom of Finland is a likeable but hastily drawn sketch of the Finnish soldier and artist whose work is responsible for many a gay man’s wet dreams.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 115 minutes
Pencil sketches of muscle men, leather uniforms and enormous penises. These works of art, long produced underground before finally making their way to gallery exhibits and then even onto a few of Finland’s stamps, are the creations of Touko Laaksonen. “Tom of Finland”, as he would later be known, came of age during the Second World War and put his fantasies on paper in order to forget about his miserable experiences as a soldier and as a man trapped in an ultra-conservative and very anti-gay society.
Some of the early scenes in Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Finland take place in Helsinki ahead of the 1952 Olympic Games and show the police clearing out a park that has become a popular cruising spot for the city’s gay community. When they catch men doing the old in-out against a tree trunk or kissing in the shadows of heavy foliage, they gang up to beat the victim with their truncheons until he can no longer offer any resistance. It is a chilling reminder of how backward and intolerant some Western societies were – and not long ago. Finland, where same-sex marriage only became possible in March 2017, had taken until 1971 to decriminalise homosexuality, although Tom of Finland (perhaps purposefully) neglects to tell us this and thus sketches a conservative Finnish society forever threatening to people like Laaksonen, portrayed by Pekka Strang.
Dome Karukoski’s biopic of arguably Finland’s most famous artist snaps from one narrative block to another as it scrambles to cram around four decades of life into two hours while pretending to take its time. The first 10 minutes alone cover four separate periods in Laaksonen’s life, and over time, we return to almost all of them in the same fitful, fragmentary manner.
The scenes have room to breathe, but the transitions between them are abrupt and often leave us scratching our heads about the missing amount of time. In addition, the two hours are rather awkwardly framed by a major leather event that, while it offers a powerful culmination and affirmation of Laaksonen’s life, feels rushed and tacked on without any proper groundwork.
There are very few narrative threads that cut across the entire film, although one of the most important (albeit, regrettably, one of the weakest) involves Laaksonen’s sister, Kaija, who never manages to accept his sexuality. Throughout their lives, she lives in bitter denial that homosexuality even exists. We gather that she wants to ignore the tragedy of her own life as a spinster by focusing on her brother’s life, even as he ends up spending most of it with a loving partner, Veli “Nipa” Mäkinen (played by the gorgeous Lauri Tilkanen).
Unlike in another biopic of a gay artist (Julian Schnabel’s glorious depiction of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in the inimitable Before Night Falls), the society portrayed in Tom of Finland is one of binary oppositions. The only person who does not fall neatly into the “gay = good”/”straight = menacing” categories is the quiet wife of an army captain who tolerates her husband’s meetings with other men. It is a real pity we do not get to see more of her, or of her kind, in this film.
As far as “Tom” himself is concerned, it remains unclear whether he ever feels like he fits in. Certainly, on his first trip to California, in the late 1970s, the warm weather and the men holding hands in public immediately signal a break from the frigid confines of Helsinki, where people still give him a dirty look if he is too intimate with Nipa. Towards the end of his life, Nipa has a persistent cough, and although his death is ultimately ascribed to throat cancer, the film’s ambiguity suggests he was very likely an early victim of the as yet undiagnosed AIDS virus.
Laaksonen, whose graphite sported members the size of baseball bats, also had a thing for leather, but we never get any indication of where this fixation originated. Perhaps it goes back to his early focus on men in uniforms, although we can’t be sure. His muse, a leather-clad biker with a prominent moustache and a police cap, is the imaginary Kake (Niklas Hogner), who becomes a central character in his work. Laaksonen says he is only satisfied with his own work if it makes him hard, but we never see him hot and bothered, even in the company of an imagined Kake, nor, for that matter, do we see anyone else getting horny from his pictures. This is a truly mystifying omission, as the film would have benefitted immensely from showing how Tom of Finland’s works offered pleasure to the gay community at large – or to himself.
Tom of Finland is more a patchwork of moments in the title character’s life than an engaging story of his life, his struggles and his motivations. By the end of the film, we still don’t know much about him, and while his Second World War trauma revisits him from time to time, these flashbacks are too scattered and superficial to add much to our understanding of his emotions. Karukoski’s film is unprovocative and doesn’t dig very deep. And although we get one or two vague notions of the life of a ground-breaking artist, the story leaves us unaffected.