Tom of Finland
by Hope Madden
Leathermen, homoeroticism, beefcake—three things you should not expect from the film Tom of Finland.
This biopic, often gorgeously shot with a painterly eye that mirrors the talent of the protagonist, examines the repression and fighting spirit that mark the life of artist Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang).
Still, there is something lacking: the energy, the bravery and the daring sexuality of the art of Laaksonen—later known as Tom of Finland.
The hushed restraint of director Dome Karukoski’s film suits its opening act as Laaksonen, a WWII lieutenant in the Finnish army, struggles against the dangers of his homosexuality. Beginning early in the film, Strang portrays a self-defined, quietly defiant figure—never reckless, but unafraid to take chances.
A strong ensemble surrounds Strang. Jessica Grabowsky and Lauri Tilkanen are particularly memorable as the artist’s sister and lover, respectively.
He finds peace and some degree of identity through his drawings—sketches of hyper-masculine men. This treatment—this particular art as a lifeline into Laaksonen’s bleak, solitary existence inside a violently repressive Finnish culture—is echoed later in the film as the art finds a grateful and receptive audience around the globe.
Unfortunately, this is where Karukoski’s presentation loses footing. There are moments where you almost feel the joy and power in this leather-clad image of defiance that Tom of Finland’s characters became, but that tonal shift gets the better of Karukoski.
Though the film touches on powerful themes of identity, art as salvation, even porn as politics, Karukoski’s reserved approach robs the film of the very vibrancy—not to mention subversive vision—of the artist’s work.
Tom of Finland is a solid, finely acted tribute to an man whose bold artistry—self-preserving though it may have been—made him a cultural icon. It just could have used a little more of his fire.