Pihla Pekkarinen takes a look at the biographical film of a queer art icon.
“Tom of… Tom of Finland.”
“Tom of Sweden would sell more.”
In its portrayal of a legendary gay icon, Tom of Finland (dir. Dome Karukoski) makes a commendable effort to condense a lifetime of groundbreaking art and activism into a two-hour whistle-stop tour of its protagonist’s life. It follows the story of Touko Laaksonen, a gay World War II veteran living in highly homophobic 1950s Finland. Suffocatingly closeted, he turns to art to realize the fantasies he cannot otherwise express. Facing arrest and as a result living in deep secrecy in his hometown of Helsinki, he builds his portfolio and eventually sends it to the US, where his drawings quickly become emblems for gay culture. It’s a story worthy of careful biopic treatment but unfortunately, by trying to tick every box, Tom of Finland gets lost within itself and leaves its audience unfulfilled.
The film’s first minutes are characterized by trenches and gunfire interspersed with Touko’s homoerotic fantasies. The opening sequences set the tone for the rest of the runtime: this film oozes sex. We see the character of Kake (an unabashedly venereal biker in tight leather trousers birthed from Touko’s imagination) smirking at us at the most unexpected points, and the film does not shy away from the topic of sex, referenced to both implicitly and explicitly.
The cinematography of the scenes set in Finland is perfectly bleak and gloomy, with any traces of joy markedly absent and replaced by a painfully accurate atmosphere of general distaste for most things in life. The blue-toned and dark scenes, amounting to about 70% of the film in total, are contrasted with those set in underground gay bars, where the red ambient lighting screams erotica. These scenes feel dangerously thrilling, touching briefly on the dangers of being gay in a predominantly Nazi society. The L.A. sequences, on the other hand, are bright and bubbly, and the juxtaposition of humourless Touko against a backdrop of green grass and pools filled with phallic floaties is rather comic. The jump from Helsinki to LA, while abrupt, works surprisingly well with the story as it feels like a continuation of Touko’s imagination, an alternate reality where “everyone’s gay in LA.”
Pekka Strang gives a charming performance as Touko Laaksonen, a war veteran plagued by his past and suffocated by the present. He hits every marker of a true Finn: distant, reserved, and frugal with his words. He made me feel like I was home again. His sister, played by Jessica Grabowsky, is equally likeable, her obvious love and concern for her brother making her homophobic comments all the more piercing. Shamefully, her character is left underdeveloped and her eventual acceptance of her brother’s sexuality is unexplained, leaving us with a somewhat two-dimensional view of her.
The problems with the writing don’t end there. The scattered screenplay makes the film convoluted and prevents it from gaining any real depth. The PTSD element of Touko’s character dominates the first half of the film, but inexplicably disappears in the second; the central love story is surface-level and fails to gain our empathy; and the desperate attempt in the final five minutes to include a mention of HIV/AIDS seems misplaced and disrespectful to the sombre subject matter. Though the actors put their best foot forward, every minor character in the film is shallow and flat. The film lacks focus and structure, which ultimately makes the viewing experience disengaging rather than heartwarming. And, perhaps most disappointingly, the focus never rests on Tom of Finland’s groundbreaking art, disregarding his lifetime of achievements in queer culture.
Overall, there is a lot to like in Tom of Finland. The visuals and Strang’s performance come together to form an impeccable image of dreariness and misery, wonderfully familiar to any Finn. The shortcomings of the screenplay, however, prevent the film from reaching its full potential, and the result is an enjoyable but fragmented portrait of an illustrious man, attempting to cover the full timeline of his life but barely scratching the surface.
Tom of Finland was released in the UK on August 11th. Check out the trailer below.