Dome Karukoski’s intuitive biopic Tom of Finland at first emulates the style of an Ed Hopper painting—all sharp contours of light and dark and saturated colors, capturing the conservative, solemn atmosphere of postwar society. But as artist Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang)—better known to most as Tom of Finland—gradually begins to break taboos, asserting a gay identity in his life and art, Karukoski likewise edges toward the subversive. This strategy not only translates the film’s shifting sociopolitical contexts—moving, as the narrative does, from Finland to San Francisco and New York City—but also evokes a duality of representation that’s central to an appreciation of Laaksonen’s work: that it has dimension as both art and pornography.
That the dichotomy is drawn perhaps too deliberately here—emphasizing a divide that shouldn’t, or doesn’t, exist—does at least serve as an interesting act of provocation. And it undeniably lends the film an emotional dynamism: There’s a contrast of feeling between, say, the tinkling, pro forma piano score that’s used frequently throughout the first hour of Tom of Finland and the euphoric post-disco of Sylvester’s “Take Me to Heaven,” which plays over the end credits. Karukoski means to liberate his film from convention in much the same way Laaksonen was able to free himself from his sexual anxieties through his art, and as more of the images of sexualized “Tom’s men” make it off the page and become a part of Laaksonen’s physical life, so, too, does Karukoski open his film to more expressive registers.
The film’s earliest scenes also benefit from a less original tension: the threat of intolerance that follows Laaksonen, as a gay man, at a time in his country when homosexuality was criminalized. This struggle connects the film to a modern context (the current president of Chechnya has very recently called for the “elimination” of his country’s gay population) and helps the period setting of Tom of Finland overcome its more staid trappings. The way Karukoski films late-night cruising and covert same-sex flirtations also exerts the stealth and paranoia of a Cold War thriller—albeit substituting one form of repression for another. One extended sequence, during which Laaksonen travels to Berlin, in an attempt to discreetly sell his erotic drawings (he calls them “landscapes”) to an influential dealer, leads to a brief stint in a German jail, as Karukoski furthers his film’s suggestion of homophobia as an extension of Cold War fears and anxieties. This thread is picked up again, in the U.S. portion of the film, when Laaksonen is confronted with the advent of the AIDS epidemic and flashes on an image of a shot-down German bomber.
Karukoski often excels at elevating his linear, historically conscious plotting with more abstract symbolism and ellipsis, leaving certain moments open to multiple interpretations. One scene, in which Laaksonen stabs and kills a Soviet paratrooper during the war, is suddenly reflected on by the artist at a time in his life when he’s struggling with the moral culpability of his art. Unfortunately, the intelligence and depth of Karukoski’s filmmaking are less facets of Aleksi Bardy’s screenwriting, which is prone to turning the film’s characters—including Laaksonen, his caring but homophobic sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), and his emotionally supportive lover, Veli (Lauri Tilkanen)—into biopic archetypes. The result is a film that projects some of the superficiality that Laaksonen’s art has been accused of over the years, and that just as surely inspires through its command of visual storytelling.