Touko Laaksonen will perhaps always be best known to many as Tom of Finland, the artist whose erotic drawings have gone from being hidden under counters to being emblazoned on t-shirts and even stamps. It could be argued that the power of his imagery may have dulled somewhat over the decades, but, filled with images of bulging, strong, sexually active men, it needs to be understood how they helped some men to realise who they are and, importantly, realise there was nothing ‘abnormal’ about what they wanted. Tom of Finland, directed by Dome Karukoski (Heart of a Lion), attempts to shed light on the man who made such a huge impact on gay culture.
Forgoing the usual start from childhood, Tom of Finland jumps into Laaksonen’s life at the end of World War II, when the artist, played by Pekka Strang, returns home a hero, but seen by society as a blemish. His sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), initially appears to supportive of her war-scarred sibling, but when he subtlety announces his homosexuality, she dismisses it as being nothing more than a symptom of confusion borne from being surrounded by men in the trenches. As the film progresses, Laaksonen finds love with dancer Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), and is literally called to America by uber-fan Doug (Seumas F. Sargent).
With same-sex relations in Finland not legal (not until 1971), Laaksonen must seek out the touch of another man in darkened alleyways and bushes, consistently fearing the next police raid. It’s during this time that he begins to pour himself into his artwork. Initially used to show off to his nightly conquests, Laaksonen appears – at least, as the film portrays it – to discover himself, and his fetishes, within the erotica. In his dowdy bedroom, Laaksonen creates Kake, a moustached, muscled biker, who would regularly appear in his work. For the purposes of the film, Kake becomes a spirit guide to Laaksonen, overlooking his work and bringing inspiration when needed.
Despite this fantastical flourish of an Adonis as a guardian angel, Tom of Finland has a rather pedestrian narrative for someone who raised the eyebrows of so many; one which ticks off several biopic tropes. Karukoski uses the oft-told device of a middle aged Laaksonen reminiscing at his desk to frame his narrative. Elsewhere, Veli succumbing to throat cancer is signalled by the Hollywood cough, which punctuates his every sentence. It’s not a bad thing per se, but the lack of subtlety makes an ambivalent Laaksonen look self-centred when he flies off to America to promote his work. Additionally, when the AIDS crisis inevitably raises its head during the narrative and conservative America aims it sights at Laaksonen’s work, Tom of Finland is surprisingly glib and rushes through what could have been an interesting chapter in the artist’s life. Presumably so it can finish on a more uplifting note.
Once you get past this though, there is very little reason not to see and enjoy Tom of Finland. Strang and Tilkanen share a wonderful chemistry, caring for each other as well as Kaija, who seems to be constantly fuelled by a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to their relationship. When Laaksonen is invited to America, these are perhaps the most joyful parts of the film as we watch him in world where he is allowed to fully embrace who he is. Later, as he stands at an exhibition held at an S&M bar, being shook by the hand by a seemingly endless line of appreciative men, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to experience a lump in your throat.
Laaksonen subverted how gay men were seen and the authority that ruled over them. His drawings, although often explicit, showed healthy young men enjoying their lives and their sexuality, in comparison to hiding away in the living rooms and basement bars society and ‘decent’ people forced them into. Tom of Finland might not be as subversive as its namesake, but as a celebration of a man who meant and means so much to so many, it does more than a good enough job.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10