‘Tom of Finland’ Review: Legendary Gay Erotic Artist Gets Sanitized Biopic

Finland’s Oscar entry scrubs clean the talented illustrator behind those iconic sexy leathermen

Tom of Finland
Josef Persson/Kino Lorber

A man named Touko Laaksonen gained notoriety in the gay community under the name Tom of Finland for his erotic artwork, which featured butch muscle men in the tightest possible pants engaging each other with their exuberantly large members. His drawings are knowingly exaggerated and uncomplicatedly celebratory of images of male power like cops and bikers.

Director Dome Karukoski’s disappointingly tame biopic “Tom of Finland” positions Tom (Pekka Strang) as an unlikely gay pioneer who fights on the Finnish side against the Russians in World War II and finds time to cruise for men in between missions. (Karukoski even cross-cuts between the fighting and the sex to get this point across.) The images in these first scenes feel studied yet fluid, and so the film looks somewhat promising at first.

Tom murders a Russian parachutist, and then he himself gets punched when he slides one of his dirty drawings under the stall of a bathroom at a club. (“Thanks, honey,” he says saucily to the man who punched him.) He meets the love of his life Veli (Lauri Tilkanen) in the woods, but police harass them and beat Veli before they can have sex. Tom watches Veli getting beaten, and later at home he draws a cop and eroticizes him. That process of eroticization is seen as a kind of revenge, and this feels like a sharp line of inquiry into Tom’s work.

But “Tom of Finland” founders on far too many slow scenes that Tom shares with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), a closed-down, negative woman who has no confidence in herself. Tom lives with the bespectacled, no-fun Kaija for quite a number of years, and she never changes or deepens as a character. Grabowsky resembles a Finnish version of Parker Posey, always puckering her face in disapproval.

There is only one moment in the film when Kaija seems like she has another side: when she rolls down a hill and looks to be reveling in the sensuality of the countryside. Otherwise, this character does to the movie what she seems to have done to Tom in life: she shuts everything down.

“Tom of Finland” is a film about a man who was famous for very dirty drawings, but it is unfortunately restricted by a dehydrated kind of good taste from ever being very dirty or very sexy. (What it really needs is a dash of Ken Russell-style vulgarity.) Instead it meanders through Tom’s life unexcitingly, even when Tom meets Veli again and they eventually move in together.

We never see Tom and Veli having sex, and we get only the vaguest impression of what their sexual life is like. Given the drawings that he created, presumably Tom was into sadomasochistic role-playing of some sort, but we never get to see even a hint of that, even when he goes to California and meets up with fans of his work who are very willing to go to bed with him.

What Karukoski needed to do here was to make it plain what made Tom tick sexually and then analyze Tom’s work on that basis. Instead, Karukoski has put together a formless look at Tom’s life that seeks to celebrate him uncritically as a hero with a pill of a sister and a sweet boyfriend who just wants to hold his hand in public sometimes. Sex and desire go missing here, to a large extent, and Tom’s work is extolled without ever acknowledging its dark, problematic side.

There’s one scene here, though, that plays very well. Tom is at a pool party in California and shooting some models when cops suddenly break in. Tom gets ready to run and take cover, as he has throughout the film whenever police harass him, until he realizes that they are not being raided. The cops are simply looking for a burglar, and they do not seem disapproving of all the men at the party. In fact, Tom even gets up the nerve to take a photo of the commanding officer, who seems pleased with the attention.

Maybe it’s too romantic a notion that you can neutralize over-reaching authority figures by bringing them into the gay sexual arena. What you do, and what Tom did, is make them more insidious by making them more attractive, and so what he offered was too simple a solution, just as “Tom of Finland” is too simple and sanitized a movie about such a tricky subject.