Ever since the bulbous, gorgeous gay erotica of one-time underground icon Tom of Finland crossed over from the locked drawer to the coffee table, it has been plagued by the same old line of discourse. Is it art or is it porn? Dome Karukoski’s straightforwardly titled biopic “Tom of Finland” makes pleasingly short work of that tedious question: It’s both, of course. Though otherwise rather too cautious about letting its freak flag fly, Karukoski’s conventionally attractive, enjoyable portrait is most effective at showcasing the bountiful beauty of Touko “Tom” Laaksonen’s fleshy, filthy sketches, as well as the empowered pursuit of pleasure for which they continue to stand. If the more intimate side of the frisky Finn’s story seems insufficiently liberated on screen — any kinky content here is pure vanilla relative to the rocky road of Tom’s own oeuvre — the film’s compromises should at least yield a wider, welcome audience for its rainbow flag-waving.
A crowd-pleasing choice of curtain-raiser at this year’s Gothenberg Film Festival — where it also landed a FIPRESCI award — “Tom of Finland” should easily rack up further fest bookings and an international spread of distribution deals. LGBT-specific programmers and buyers will obviously be first in line, but Laaksonen’s film has ample crossover potential thanks to a cinematic sensibility that’s only moderately queer, plus a surface as glossy as the taut black leather coating the cartoonish curves of Tom’s fantasy musclemen. There’s nothing here to deter a more playful filmmaker from more explicitly probing the intricacies of the artist’s personal fetishry, as well as his legacy in contemporary gay culture, but this serves as an appealing (albeit loosely factual) primer all the same.
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The film’s opening reels are its strongest and most sinuous, as the closeted young Laaksonen (the lanky, likeable Pekka Strang, manfully playing the character across a half-century span) first tentatively acts on his same-sex desires while serving in the Finnish army during the Second World War: Karukoski has a sharp, precise sense of the wordless power in glances and gazes, giving early scenes of nighttime park cruising and bar-crawling a frisson of tension and electric connection. Scenes of police confrontation and military action — in particular, a bloody, supposedly formative run-in with a dreamy, dashingly mustachioed Russian paratrooper — are cannily framed through Laaksonen’s eyes to imply his burgeoning erotic fixation with authority and its iconography; costume designer Anna Vilppunen deftly clothes his surrounding menfolk in uniforms that, while historically authentic, all look tailored to a particular T.
After the war he moves in with his younger sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), who also works at the advertising agency where he’s employed as an illustrator. She’s affectionate but homophobic, essentially stalling his coming-out process; for a time, it seems his life as a gay man will be limited to the postcard-sized sketches of free-and-easy horseplay between generously appendaged beefcakes that he doodle in his spare time. That changes when Kaija — evidently one of those women who wondered why Liberace couldn’t settle down with a nice girl — takes on the beautiful, covertly gay dancer Veli (Lauri Tilkanen) as a lodger. He and Laaksonen become smitten, emboldening the latter to bring his hidden artistic oeuvre slightly more out into the open; gradually, he accrues a following beyond Finland’s highly conservative borders, as the rechristened Tom’s drawings essentially provide the very blue blueprint for an international queer leather scene that thrives to this day.
This entire silent ascent to notoriety is chronicled, however formulaically, with tender loving care. Things get a bit sloppier in the second half, following an awkward, decade-skipping lurch in the timeline that glosses over some critical personal development on the protagonist’s part; a temporary shift in focus to the blossoming of his earliest American fan and eventual patron Doug (Seumas Sargent) is equally ungainly. If the film’s pacing never quite recovers from this leap, Tom’s Californication years still yield some lively material, as Karukoski and screenwriter Aleksi Bardy look back wistfully at an era of sexual revolution in the U.S. that pointedly seems all the more distant and golden in this age of aggressive conservatism.
This backlash to, and eventual liberated reclamation of, Tom’s art in the wake of the AIDS crisis is but one complicated angle that “Tom of Finland” hastens through a bit too glibly in its rush to an uplifting climax — one that could hardly be more joyously scored to Sylvester’s ecstatic disco anthem “Take Me to Heaven.” Such narrative cramming, in addition to the sexual beigening of the story’s colorful sexual content, are predictable pitfalls of this mainstream biopic format, but Karukoski’s film at least honors its subject’s work in some key respects: It’s handsome, smoothly executed and eager to entertain.