Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Oftentimes historical dramas have the bittersweet task of reminding us not only of the progress we’ve made, but of the distance we have yet to travel. Dome Karukoski’s biopic Tom of Finland examines the adult life of Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang), whose stylized erotic drawings had a significant impact on twentieth-century LGBT culture. Much of the film takes place in his native country, where homosexuality is looked down on as both a crime and a curable ailment. It is only after a visit to California, where Touko’s art has been published under the pseudonym “Tom of Finland”, that he finds any public acceptance of his true self.
There are two fascinating experiences that bookend Laaksonen’s life. As a young man he was conscripted into the Finnish army near the end of the Winter War and served through World War II. The dual stresses of a return to civilian life and concealing his sexuality combine to provide much of the drive behind his early drawings. In the last decade of his life, Laaksonen visited California at the behest of a fan who helped arrange for exhibitions of his work and later became his business partner. Los Angeles, with its thriving gay community, turned into a welcome second home after so many years of overt and covert discrimination. Regrettably, the film capitalizes on neither period and generally drifts through Laaksonen’s life without much momentum. It makes what must have been a colorful, revolutionary life feel tepid on-screen.
Despite the poor translation from flesh to celluloid, Strang does an excellent job capturing the largely wordless way Laaksonen could live and express himself. In a country where homosexual acts are outlawed, intent can only be expressed through glances, and Touko does not always interpret them correctly. Strang also excels as Laaksonen ages; the silence of Touko’s youth shifts in tone from repression to discretion once he finds the regular freedom afforded by his westward journeys. Taisto Oksanen is underutilized as a military commander who offers understanding and assistance to Touko at several times throughout his life, and Lauri Tilkanen provides emotional balance as Veli, Laaksonen’s partner of nearly 30 years.
Karukoski and cinematographer Lasse Frank make Tom of Finland a lovely film to watch. It’s disappointing that strong direction and performances don’t quite compensate for an unsuitably sedate script. With six separate contributors given writing credits, this may be a case of too many voices trying to do too much in one story. Nonetheless, if their efforts help share the story of an important artist and influencer in the LGBT community, then Tom of Finland should be counted as a success.
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