Tom of Finland -- real name Touko Laaksonen -- is the 20th century Finnish artist whose erotic art featuring hyper-masculine men in tight uniforms with bulging biceps and erect, comically enormous penises inspired repressed gay men the world over to embrace their own inner sex gods. In the admirably ambitious yet disappointing new film Tom of Finland, director Dome Karukoski and screenwriter Aleksi Bardy cover 40-odd years in the life of Laaksonen (a superb Pekka Strang), a turn of time in which the artist goes from hiding his drawings behind an attic wall to seeing them become celebrated and then iconic.
It's likely to surprise Tom of Finland fans that there's so little explicit sex in this movie, but the choice, which certainly makes a slow movie even slower, feels true to the period, which was all about holding forbidden desires at bay. Born in 1920, Laaksonen learned early on to admire men furtively, and save his deepest feelings for the page. During World War II, he becomes practiced in the art of the lingering glance, leading to clandestine liaisons, a cruising-as-life stratagem he'll deploy in civilian life as well.
As he draws, Laaksonen flashes on men he was attracted to but didn't dare approach: laborers, briskly tailored military officers and, most specifically, a handsome Russian paratrooper (Siim Maaten) he knifed to death in the war. But Tom of Finland plays like an over-cited term paper. The film is jammed with incident but there's little flow to the storytelling, and often no clear sense of what year it is or which soldier belongs to which army, much less why the filmmakers keep returning to Laaksonen's bigoted, dreary sister (Jessica Grabowsky).