Tom of Finland review – tasteful biopic of a homoerotic artist
Touko Laaksonen’s drawings of giant phalluses are glossed over in this engaging drama
Pekka Strang as Touko Laaksonen in ‘Tom of Finland’. Photograph: Josef Persson
Film Title: Tom of Finland
Director: Dome Karukoski
Starring: Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilkanen, Jessica Grabowsky, Taisto Oksanen, Seumas Sargent, Jakob Oftebro, Niklas Hogner
Running Time: 115 min
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-to-grave 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. It’s not the transgressive film its subject might have hoped for, but it pivots pleasingly around a terrific turn by Pekka Strang, who also ages convincingly throughout.