Director: Dome Karukoski
Cast: Jakob Oftebro, Werner Daehn, Pekka Strang
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Best known by his pseudonym Tom of Finland, Touko Laaksonen was a Finnish artist whose homoerotic fetish art – usually depicting absurdly muscular men in leather, enjoying each other’s company – had a huge influence on gay culture in the late 20th century, effectively creating gay iconography. This respectful, beautifully made biopic, from director Dome Karukoski and screenwriter Aleksi Bardy, is both entertaining and informative, but it’s also curiously restrained and occasionally undermined by some peculiar editing.
Pekka Strang plays Touko, who we first meet as a closeted Finnish soldier in WWII, his nightly (and illegal) cottaging visits to the local park given an extra thrill by the occasional air raid. After the war, Touko moves in with his sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), from whom he tries to conceal his sexuality, but things come to a head, when he begins a relationship with their attractive ballet dancer flatmate, Nipa (Lauri Tilkanen).
While working as an advertising illustrator, Touko begins drawing erotic pictures of muscular men, which he signs with the pseudonym “Tom” and circulates in underground gay clubs. Encouraged by Nipa, Touko sends his pictures to California for publication, where they prove a huge hit, resulting in an eye-opening trip to America.
Pekka Strang delivers a compelling central performance that remains engaging, while also suggesting that Touko is always holding something of himself back, whether in his edgy relationship with his sister (who reveals some artistic talent of her own) or in his romance with Nipa. In that respect, it’s telling that Touko’s most revealing moment – a cockily candid comment about his artwork to a hook-up – is immediately followed by a robbery and a humiliating arrest.
The script pulls a similar trick a number of times, presenting an incident in Touko’s past and allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions rather than have the characters spell something out. This is particularly successful when it touches on Touko’s formative fetishisation of uniforms, both with Nazi and Russian officers during the war, and later, when he observes uniformed police officers beating young homosexuals in the park at night.
That said, the script also has an annoying tendency to raise an intriguing idea and then immediately shy away from it, whether it’s Touko’s complex relationship with violence (he is both haunted and fascinated by the memory of killing a Russian soldier during the war) or the tantalising – but ultimately unexplored – complexity of the relationship that evolves between Touko, Kaija and Nipa.
Similarly, the film suffers from a common problem in biopics that span more than 50 years, in that the editing suddenly leaps forward to another time period, just as things are getting interesting – this is particularly frustrating in the depiction of the central romance, but it also short-changes the sequences set during the AIDS crisis.
On a similar note, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that the filmmakers could have taken a few more risks in regard to the sexual content – they already have an 18 rating, after all. Indeed, with the exception of one cheeky moment in a bar, Touko’s artwork is probably the raciest thing in the film. Maybe that was the point.
Tom of Finland is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
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