Director: Dome Karukoski
East End Film Festival 2017 review
Dome Karukoski’s decades-spanning biopic, Tom of Finland, is a gradual emergence from the darkness for a man, a way of life and an artistic vision. This is a journey writ large in the film’s evolving aesthetics – from the exquisite gloom of the authoritarian post-war years to the sexual vibrancy of sunny California’s gay scene – and an appropriate trajectory given the brazen eroticism of Touko Laaksonen’s art coupled with its grim origins in a nation where gay men grappled with shame and persecution. This is not your typically glamourous blending of sex and danger but rather a tender, humanist tribute to a man who learned to externalise what was inside of him and, in doing so, inspired others to do the same.
Pekka Strang delivers an exceptional performance as the film’s titular creator of the often pornographic illustrations that would influence several generations’ worth of queer culture. Laaksonen, better known by his pseudonym, Tom of Finland, carries a quiet dignity as he moves from his time serving in the military – in which a violent encounter with a Russian paratrooper creates a haunting memory that resonates for the film’s remainder – to his years in the aftermath trying to indulge in his sexuality while concealing it from everyone, including his caring but prejudiced sister. Through the collision of the personal and the historical, we are granted poignant reminders of why Laaksonen’s titillating drawings of brawny uniformed men mattered, including a crushing side-plot which sees a gay diplomat and friend of Laaksonen’s broken by the state, eventually succumbing to an internalised homophobia that stands in opposition to Laaksonen’s bold output.
Nonetheless, one of the most refreshing traits of Karukoski’s film is that it never feels the need to explain or morally elevate the motivations of the artist. Though we have no doubt that Laaksonen’s drawings were influenced in part by systemic oppression, as well as the traumas of combat, Tom of Finland attributes its title character’s artistic drive less to any ideological sense of duty (final third excepted) than to a personal and inherent need to create. The solemn opening third in particular carries a consistent underlying feeling of forward momentum as once vague ideas form and slowly take shape. We see how state symbols of fear and authority in mid-20th century Europe are captured and subverted in the commanding garb of Laaksonen’s fetishistic illustrations before being joyously released back into reality via the leather-clad men that Laaksonen meets in San Francisco.
Once Laaksonen’s long-simmering dreams are physically manifest, this most intriguing of thematic threads runs out of new places to go, and so the climactic final stretch of Tom of Finland sees the film lean heavily on the standard inspirational biopic template with less inspired, if still frequently moving, results. But despite this partial lapse into workmanlike mechanics, Tom of Finland’s more predictable elements are comfortably outweighed by the intelligence and empathy of Karukoski’s richly revealing direction. Though Laaksonen’s life, like his oeuvre, was a point of intersection for a variety of at least ostensibly conflicting concepts – fascism and liberty, pleasure and despair, art and porn – Tom of Finland for the most part moves seamlessly through this existence, demonstrating the push and pull of forces both external and internal that factor into art, history and sexuality alike.