Scandi FF Review: Tom of Finland

Gay iconography has never been more recognisable than through the works of Touko Laaksonen aka Tom of Finland. The Finnish artist finally gets his immortality on screen in this plush biopic from co-writer/director Dome Karukoski. A handsome, if safe, production that needs a bit more meat on the bones to really bring it home.

A feature of this year’s Scandinavian Film Festival, this supremely polished Finnish celebrates the life of one of the world’s most easily identifiable artists with a by-the-numbers biopic that refreshingly plays its homosexuality in a positive way as it dances around the politics and social restrictions of post WWII Europe and, at a later date, the United States.

We meet Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) during the trials of World War II as he serves in the Finnish army fending off a Russian advance. Concealing his sexual identity he, like many men of the time, disappears to a local park for late night encounters. Often raided by local police which would result in men being beaten and arrested (our hero avoids this), this sort of men in uniform dominance over other men sews a seed in Touko.

As the war ends Touko, a budding sketcher all his own, finds himself struggling to contain his true self as he sneaks out at night to indulge his urges whilst shying away from the prying questions of his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky). When he turns his pencil to sketching homo-erotica involving hyper-stylised masculinity, leather and dominance he finds a freedom that, as he begins to show other people, grows in underground popularity.

Tom of Finland‘s works are instantly recognisable and you’ve most likely encountered them before and not even realised it. The endless fascination in the artist is where this concept and its here where the film dallies rather than hits home.

Given the full gamut and breadth of subject matter that plays into the history of Tom of Finland, writer/director Dome Karukoski (The Grump, Heart of a Lion) has chosen to do a bird’s eye fly through a chronological exploration of his life. There’s a misjudged reference to a wartime incident that is supposed to signify a defining moment for the artist that doesn’t quite land. It also powers through some genuinely meaty dramatic points of life as a gay man in Europe post-WWII, leaving the sequences without the required emotional heft that they are intended to be.  A love story feels predictable even if well played and falls short of really hitting the notes it aims for.

The result is a bird’s eye view biography that’s as handsomely made as any plush studio offering but just doesn’t have enough meat on the bones to drive it home. Whilst it is sex-positive and homosexual positive, the film teases but never really drives into the S&M side of Touko’s character in any real depth. There’s no fully realised explanation as to why he draws these figures and his meteoric rise as a cultural phenomenon just kind of happens.

Certainly aimed at a broad audience and delivering the right positive message about gay culture, Tom of Finland is a plush production that services the artist’s life in snapshots. There’s more to be told in this story but as a gateway introduction it works.

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TOM OF FINLAND screens exclusively at the 2017 VOLVO SCANDINAVIAN FILM FESTIVAL