Tom Of Finland ***
Starring: Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilkanen, Jessica Grabowski, Seumus F. Sargent, Jakob Oftebro
Director: Dome Karukoski
It’s unlikely that you’ve not heard of Tom Of Finland. His images of leather-clad moustachioed German bikers engaging in gay sexual activity have become some of the most iconic of the LGBT Community, but little is known of the man behind the moniker, Touku Laaksonen. In this Finnish biopic of the artist who would come to shape a whole generation of gay identity, director Dome Karukoski seeks to tell his story, exploring where his inspiration for such hyper-sexualised imagery came from.
Touku (Strang) serves in the Finnish army during World War Two. Engaging in illicit hook-ups with soldiers in the blackouts, he develops a predilection for uniformed men. After the war, he continues to go cruising in the local park, where he is chased by policemen, from whom he finds inspiration for his early erotic drawings. It is on one such evening that he encounters Veli (Tilkanen), a young dancer who Touku’s sister (Grabowski) takes in as a lodger. They begin a secret relationship and in order for them to be able to afford their own house together, Veli encourages the artist to attempt to sell his work abroad.
In the first half of the film, Tom Of Finland plays out like a straight biopic, charting the origins of Touku’s art and explaining how he came to rise to such prominence. As such, the film is sturdy – albeit unremarkable – with its historic account about a little-known figure. However, midway through the film, the narrative suddenly takes a sharp 90 degree turn, as we suddenly find ourselves in California, following the storyline of two gay men (Sargent & Oftebro), who discover, champion and then emulate Touku’s work in the US.
It’s true that there really are two strands to the story of Tom Of Finland; Tom’s story and Touku’s story. In trying to grapple with this dual narrative, the mid-section of the film focuses on the creation of this iconoclasm away from Touku and his life in Finland. The grey concrete of mid-twentieth century Helsinki starkly contrasts with the sun-drenched vistas of California and with this dual-narrative only starting midway through the film, it jars somewhat with everything that has come before. Had the two storylines, two locations and two characters been running concurrently throughout the film, then it would have been easier for the director to reconcile them, but as it stands, the mid-section feels like a piece from another film. When the two strands are brought together at the end of the movie, its vibrant hedonism subsequently feels a whole world away from the first hour of somewhat subdued filmmaking.
The men that Touku created are distinctively different from himself and Veli. Hyper-masculine, with swollen muscles and sexual organs, his creations barely resemble even the figures from which he took his inspiration. These are figures of his fantasies, but who populate the film as realised but imaginary fugures, wandering around the scenes in leather jackets and biker hats. In a scene in California, Touku visits his own exhibition for the first time and is presented with a crowd of fans who have emulated the style that he created. They are broad, muscular beefcakes, clad in leather, with sunglasses and hats in the exact fashion he had been drawing for years. His fantasies had become reality, but we only hear about his reaction to this moment in a muted conversation with Veli back in Finland. Unfortunately, this skipping over the interesting parts is pretty intrinsic within the style of the film. Often, Karukoski gives vignettes from before and after events, without showing the drama. Which is often frustrating.
There is a handful of proficient performances and the film is very informative about the history of both Touku and LGBT Rights in Finland, but stylistically, the film is unable to find its stride by playing it safe for 90% of its time on screen, with the remaining 10% going off on a wild tangent that looks like an advert for Piz Buin. With its two hour runtime, it also struggles with pace, with its first half long and laboured and its second without any real climax. As a result, Tom Of Finland is a messy biopic that struggles to find the right tone of voice with which to tell the story of a gay icon.