This year has been an extraordinarily great for queer cinema, with Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country, and BPM standing as some of the year’s most acclaimed films. What makes these films so great is they give a glimpse into the gay experience through fleshed out characters and touching stories, making any political issues secondary to the character’s experience. Tom of Finland however does the exact opposite, putting the struggle of the gay artist Touko Laaksonen (aka the eponymous Tom of Finland) at the forefront of this flaccid biopic, rather than letting his troubled rise to stardom focus on these issues in a more natural way.
Tom of Finland tells the true story of Laaksonen (Peeka Strang), who gained notoriety from his erotic artwork, with unnaturally proportioned men, often clad in leather and with ridiculously oversized genitals. Tom used this as an artistic outlet to portray his hidden desires, but over the decades his art would become an important symbol for the homosexual world. Unable to sell his drawings in his home country of Finland, Tom’s drawings became iconic in the United States, and would eventually lead to Tom arriving in California, showing his art in galleries to adoring fans.
Tom of Finland starts by showing the double life that Tom is forced to deal with. He is shown fighting in World War II, then meeting strangers in the woods for sex, or working at his advertising job drawing uninspired copy, only to hide his hand-drawn bulging men from those closest to him. But the film quickly dissolves with Tom facing discrimination from strangers or his own sister, making him more of a sign of intolerance than an actual flesh and blood person.
Things happen to Tom and we learn details of Tom’s interests, but they never actually have any impact on him a person. Tom murders a Russian in the war, but this is just an insignificant detail from Tom’s past. Tom’s sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky) disapproves of his lifestyle and turns a blind eye when he starts a relationship with their mutual crush Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), but her disapproval and their new relationship don’t change Tom in any way. Even when Tom finds success, loses friends to disease later in his life, and his life changes in drastic ways, it’s as if these moments are happening around Tom and nothing more.
Considering the nature of Tom’s artwork, it’s odd just how tame Tom of Finland ends up becoming. Director Dome Karukoski and writer Aleksi Bardy follow the standard chronological biopic pattern, without any of the necessary depth into what makes their protagonist the way he is. So much of Tom of Finland centers around Tom’s artwork and how much his art means to others – including one fantastic sequence showing the importance of his art to a gay couple in California – yet Karukoski and Bardy never probe Tom’s feelings, desires, or impulses. Tom of Finland just seems interested in the most bare details of Tom and his work, with the same level of scrutiny as Wikipedia.
For a person like Laaksonen, who was clearly comprised of so many layers, the paper-thin look into his life with Tom of Finland doesn’t do the man justice. There’s a remarkable story hidden within Tom of Finland, but this sanitized glimpse of Laaksonen’s life is too generic and shallow for its intricate subject.