‘Tom of Finland’ review: a flimsy, sensationalist funfair that doesn’t satisfy

18th August 2017

Tom of Finland’s wholesome, muscular men with cheeky grins and impressive erections, illustrating countless gay sexual fantasies in the numerous guises of bikers, sailors, lumberjacks and even Nazi soldiers have courted the gay culture for many decades. As the drawings of Finnish creator Tuoko Laaksonen aka Tom of Finland are becoming accepted by the art establishment, a biopic was surely inevitable. A biopic which successfully provides a glossy and vivid account of a colourful life but perhaps lacks the edge and subversion owed to such a beacon of gay culture and subcultures.

We encounter Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) as a soldier in the line of duty World War II; opening scenes of him escaping barracks seeking light relief with fellow privates in a nearby forest. Once the war ends, Touko moves in with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky) in Helsinki where after a bout of post-war depression, he pursues a career in advertising. Tuoko continues to graft at his talent of drawing, specifically graphic homoerotic images which he keeps under lock and key. As these drawings begin to see the light of day, they take a life of their own and what follows is Tuoko’s ascension from bedroom hobby to being picked by a US adult publisher to becoming Tom of Finland, a bona fide gay icon.

Strang’s performance is very good and carries the film with great ease. He resembles Laaksonen remarkably; in looks and manner. His Laaksonen is handsome, stoic, talented, becoming increasingly self-obsessed as success beckons. Visually the film is seamless, scenes feature a slick, Nordic feel; the depiction of the passing decades is on point; all flowing smoothly with an easy to follow plot.  However, biopics are a tricky thing to master: is it better to focus on a particular period? or to encompass the whole spectrum of one’s life? Director Dome Karukoski, chooses the latter as he tries to pack in as much as possible in 115 minutes.

Despite the film’s charm and impressive acting, it doesn’t salvage the film from feeling remarkably twee and lacking any oomph. We have glimpses of Tom Finland's pin-up character, leather biker Kake as some sort of alter ego, but these are very few and far between, its almost pointless. Furthermore, we are not given a more in depth look at the backlash of Laaksonen drawings in the '80s; their blatant promiscuity proved controversial with advent of the HIV epidemic. Instead we are offered a more self-serving conundrum of his work not being favoured by the artistic community.

Other efforts such as the Liberace biopic Behind The Candelabra provided such a rich and humorous portrayal and told an alternative version of happenings through the eyes of his partner Scott. Tom Of Finland is a more of diluted and generic telling of lauded life. Granted, Laaksonen fame was perhaps more niche, so Karukoski choses to swap the darker alternative sexual subcultures that his drawings and his personal life occupied for a more insightful and educational approach. The result though is a rather thin, flimsy, sensationalist, fun-fare account that simply doesn’t satisfy.
Words By Daniel Theophanous
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