Touko Laaksonen, famously known by his pseudonym Tom of Finland, is considered one of the most influential artists of homoerotic art. His depiction of muscular men in tight leather clothing, often with exaggerated appendages, became a source of inspiration for a generation of gay men.
Dome Karukoski’s biopic Tom of Finland aims to provide insight into the man behind the iconic images. Commencing with Laaksonen’s (Pekka Strang) time in World War II, which was a mixture of trauma and illicit pleasure, the film carefully constructs a portrait of a man who continually risked it all in the name of sexual liberation. Living with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky) in Helsinki after the war, Laaksonen spent his days working as an artist for an advertising firm and his nights looking for intimate encounters.
As homosexuality was illegal at the time, and the mere sight of two men touching hands in a tender manner could evoke a violent response by the police, Laaksonen used his “dirty pictures” and subtle gestures to pick up men looking for sexual encounters. After witnessing a particularly brutal police raid on homosexuals canoodling in the park, and still haunted by his experience in the war, Laaksonen comes up with the idea to create “Kake”, a biker who would become the fictional muse for all of his drawings.
Amassing a following within his local gay community, Laaksonen’s life changed forever when, under the moniker Tom of Finland, his homoerotic artwork is published and embraced overseas.
For a man whose work became a symbol of rebellion and empowerment, it can be argued that Karukoski’s film plays it surprisingly safe. Tom of Finland follows the traditional biopic structure with all the familiar beats one would expect. There is the overcoming the odds narrative, moments where the characters must confront a serious illness, and the overarching message of acceptance.
Thankfully there is much in this film that rises above its conventional trappings.
Karukoski does a good job of emphasizing the dangers that came with being gay in Europe during that era. Forced to literally gather in secret under the cover of night in parks and underground clubs, one misread signal could cause a person to be arrested, institutionalized, or worse. This offers a powerful contrast to Laaksonen’s experience in a sexually liberated America later in life.
Tom of Finland also does a great job of showing the complexities of Laaksonen’s various relationships and friendships. The love triangle between Laaksonen, Kaija and new roommate Veli (Lauri Tilkanen) crackles with the right amount of jealousy and tension. While the warmth of Laaksonen’s friendship with American fans Doug (Seumas Sargent) and Jack (Jakob Oftebro) effectively reinforces the lasting power of his work.
While not as radical as the man at its core, Tom of Finland is an effective tribute to an icon who gave a generation of men worldwide the strength and courage to be themselves.