There’s something refreshingly pragmatic about Tom of Finland the movie in relationship to Tom of Finland the artist. While Tom was known for producing art that featured hyper-endowed musclemen engaging in physics-defying feats of sexual prowess, the biopic of his life is surprisingly realistic and grounded. This in almost all measures a good thing, as it treats its subject with the reverence and respect that’s due to an undisputed icon of gay culture.
The film begins with pre-Tom Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) as a closeted lieutenant in the Finnish Army during World War II and ends with him taking the stage surrounded by hundreds of adoring fans in the United States. In-between, the film explores his tense relationship with Touko’s quietly homophobic sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky) and his complicated romance with handsome dancer Veli (Lauri Tilkanen). But the most complex struggle is always between Touko and his own sexuality and art, which he is forced to admit are intrinsically connected.
For a film about a man who’s art is synonymous with sexual expression, Tom of Finland is surprisingly sober and restrained in many ways, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For the first half of the movie, the focus is squarely on Tom navigating his identity as a gay man in a time where such a thing was illegal. Scenes set in a park where Tom goes to cruise for secret encounters are filled with the same tension and ambience of a classic spy film. Even the relatively muted reactions of Kaija to her brother’s art and lifestyle are underwritten by an incredibly gripping but almost invisible sense of drama, especially when both her and Tom fall for Veli at the same time.
The film brightens up considerably once the bulk of the action is shifted to California and Tom realizes the impact his art has had on the fledging gay community, especially the leather and BDSM cultures. While treated almost as a criminal at home, he’s welcomed as a hero by the men who’ve built their lives around his imagery and emboldened by the out and proud men of San Fransisco. Even after he returns home from this journey, he carries with him a sense of infectious optimism and confidence.
A great deal of the film rests on Pekka Strang’s wiry shoulders, and he is a consistently magnetic if underplayed presence. There’s barely a single moment where Strang raises his voice, maintaining a tightly-controlled grip on Tom’s emotional expression that only enhances his performance. Even after being gay-bashed in a bathroom, he exits not with a shout at his attacker but with a terse and angry “Thanks, honey.” In fact, there’s very little high drama in the film at all, with both it and Strang presenting Tom in a very simple, matter-of-fact way.
Strang’s supporting cast flows in the same manner, giving the film a pleasantly simmering type of energy. Strang has excellent chemistry with Lauri Tilkanen, who’s Veli has a kind of appealing innocence about him. Similarly, Strang’s rapport with Jessica Grabowsky is amazing, and even when Kaija is at her most disapproving, the undercurrent of love between the two is obvious. The closest anyone gets to over-emoting is Seamus F. Sargent as the cheerful Doug, Tom’s number one American fan, but even he plays the character as satisfyingly realistic (and his relationship with Jakob Ofterbro’s gorgeous muscleboy Jack is incredibly sweet).
Hints of what are hidden behind Tom’s stoicism come from his imaginary interactions with Kake, the iconic leatherman introduced in Tom’s work, played by Swedish figure skater Niklas Hogner. Appealing and incredibly sensual without saying a word, Hogner’s Kake further helps to illustrate Tom’s inner thought process and his future influence his art would play in defining leather culture. Whether he’s laying on a bed in full gear or dancing jubilantly in crowds of harness-class men, he serves as a quick and easy (if sometimes too easy) barometer of the emotions Tom keeps hidden.
The film’s main issues are part and parcel of the biopic genre, namely how a great number of plot developments are ridiculously predictable. Even for a man who’s history isn’t widely known or explored, there are a great number of obvious story beats. You could set a watch to the frequent police raids Tom experiences while in Finland. When Veli starts coughing toward the end of act 2, we all know what’s going to happen in act 3. And as a fair portion of the last act is centered around the gay community of San Fransisco in the 1980s, it’s impossible not to bring up the early scourge of AIDS.
But it’s in how the film’s characters handle these events that makes the film so mesmerizing and memorable. Whereas it would be tempting to play any one of these events for melodrama, director Dome Karukoski keeps everything on a very even level, letting the events speak for themselves instead of dressing them up with manipulative music or unchecked performances. It’s in this judicious restraint that Karukoski keeps the film from becoming salacious or ridiculous. While this occasionally works against him, especially in the film’s early moments, it becomes very easy to get into the quiet flow of the narrative.
It’s incredibly difficult to fully quantify exactly what made Tom such an important and influential figure. To its credit, Tom of Finland avoids becoming too much of a documentary, content to extrapolate Tom’s impact by exploring the inner journey of the man himself. Much like how Bettie Page made bondage seem charming and wholesome back in the day, Tom’s work has a celebratory and welcoming atmosphere amidst all the incredible sex and impossible bulges. Tom always saw himself as an artist first and foremost, and thankfully, so does Dome Karukoski’s film.
60 years ago, Tom’s artwork could have landed him in jail. Today, the film about his life is Finland’s official entry for the 2017 Best Foreign Film Oscar. If that in and of itself isn’t at least a little inspiring, I don’t know what is.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+