In focusing on the more chaste aspects of Tom’s journey, Tom of Finland has deprived the creator of some of the 20th century’s most provocative art of the very thing that motivated him.
There is a scene towards the end of Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Finland that finds the titular Tom arriving in California and being immediately whisked away to a party at a secluded house. The surprised Tom, used to frigid climates and frigid people, is greeted by a gaggle of leather-clad gay acolytes, who are having a pool party in his honor, inflatable-penis floats and all. Tom learns that all of these men are fans of his art, and his shy joy beams as bright as the Los Angeles sunshine. This scene is a delight, and it is hard not to wish that the rest of the film were as sexy and enlightening as this short section.
Touko Laaksonen, or Tom of Finland, is a gay icon. Even those who haven’t heard of him have probably seen one of his drawings, which usually feature preposterously endowed, muscular men engaged in one or more gay sex acts. “Tom’s Men” are caricatures of masculinity, outrageously over-developed tributes to male beauty. While Karukoski’s film captures Tom’s motivation for creating his work, it fails to embody the essence of what he created. Instead, Tom of Finland is a quiet look at a man’s development as an artist and an icon, and while it succeeds in portraying the sensitivity and drive of its subject, Karukoski and writer Aleksi Bardy should have done more to capture Tom’s spirit.
Tom, played here with an appealing mixture of vulnerability or conviction by Finnish actor Pekka Strang, fought for Finland in World War II and upon his return to civilian life found homosexuality under attack. As a result, he used his pencil to create a world of sexually liberated gay men. These men were frequently dressed in leather, soldier’s uniforms or sailor’s outfits and were almost comically sexual. Though the work was notable for its depiction of homosexuality, the real revolutionary aspect of Tom’s work was how insanely sexual it was in a time and place when repression was the standard. And though the film often nails the humor of a quiet, conservatively dressed man creating such work, it doesn’t spend much time on the work itself. Tom’s pictures are glimpsed infrequently, as are his inspirations. It feels as if the story has been purposely desexualized, which raises the question of why Karukoski and Bardy felt the need to do so.
Perhaps it was to put an emphasis on the human aspect of Tom’s journey, the incredible story of a gay man serving in the armed forces and then going on to become an international icon. However, the quiet moments used to build this story are too quiet, and scenes of gentle romance between Tom and Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), a dancer renting from Tom’s sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), are almost ridiculously tender and chaste. Though Lasse Frank’s cinematography is often strikingly beautiful, the slow pace and coy placement of the camera only serve to further desexualize what should be a hot-blooded film.
Though Tom of Finland is well made, it lacks the essence of the actual Tom of Finland. It shies away from controversies that have arisen over the years, from Tom’s use of Nazi uniforms in some of his work (though he vehemently denounced the regime when questioned about it) to backlash against his work during the AIDS crisis, and the fact that these are brushed over makes Tom seem bland rather than noble. In focusing on the more chaste aspects of Tom’s journey, Tom of Finland has deprived the creator of some of the 20th century’s most provocative art of the very thing that motivated him.