Finland’s official entry for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2018, Tom of Finland is a handsome production. This is a biopic of artist Touko Laaksonen. Laaksonen’s erotic drawings (under the pseudonym Tom of Finland) had a huge influence on gay identity and became a symbol of gay pride in the sexually liberated 70s and 80s. Ilppo Pohjola’s 1991 documentary Daddy And The Muscle Academy: A Documentary on the Art, Life and Times of Tom of Finland previously explored the artist’s life. This biopic takes a more dramatic approach to the material, and spans some forty years.
The film opens in Finland in the 1940s. Laaksonen (played by Pekka Strang) is serving in the army, fighting againstthe Russians. Traumatised by his experiences, he returns home to live with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky). He finds a job at the same advertising company where Kaija works. His bosses appreciate the quality of his drawings. But at night in his own room, he draws exaggerated fantasies – erotic and highly stylised drawings of leather-clad men.
Laaksonen cruises the parks at night for illicit trysts with men, running the risk of being arrested. This was time when homosexuality was illegal. Finland’s police vigorously enforced draconian anti-gay laws and gays were persecuted. When Kaija brings handsome but closeted dancer Veli (Lauri Tilkanen) home, and he moves into the apartment as a lodger, Laaksonen and Veli become secret lovers. Veli encourages him with his drawings and helps him find his voice in conservative post-war Finland.
His drawings make their way to America where a publisher Doug (Seumus Sargent), champions them. Laaksonen makes his way to America. There he finds a liberating experience in the sexual revolution. It’s a stark contrast to the more repressive attitudes of his native Finland. His subversive homoerotic drawings become a symbol of the queer leather subculture; and he finds himself a counterculture hero.
Strang (TV series Bordertown) gives a sympathetic performance as Laaksonen. He’s aged delicately to portray the character across the course of four decades. Performances from Tilkanen and Grabowsky (Thicker Than Water) are also solid.
There’s sometimes a fine line between art and pornography, and that theme is explored. Award-winning Finnish director Dome Karukoski and Aleksi Bardy (who collaborated on the WWII drama Heart of a Lion) wrote the screenplay. The film covers the period from the conservative 40s through to the sexually liberated 80s. It explores Laaksonen’s successful career in America where he was lauded as a champion of the gay rights movement. The film even looks at the spectre of the AIDS epidemic and the impact it had on the gay community.
Because of his own background, Karukoski seems drawn to stories of outsiders and their struggle to find acceptance. Given the subject matter though, Karukoski’s approach is surprisingly tame, and this is a fairly conventional biopic. It seems a little rushed at times, and glosses over some events in Laaksonen’s life.
Cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannessen (Borgen) uses different colour schemes to contrast the four different countries in which the film was shot. The Finnish scenes are shot in a darker palette, reflecting the austere nature of the post-war society. The scenes in a more liberated America use a brighter palette, evoking that sense of freedom. The production design from Christian Orlander captures the austere nature of post-WWII Finland.
Tom of Finland screened at the recent Scandinavian Film Festival, and this limited theatrical release will bring this inspiring story to a wider audience.
Director: Dome Karukoski
Cast: Pekka Strang, Jessica Grabowsky, Lauri Tilkanen
Release Date: 19 October 2017 (limited)
Rating: R 18+
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Tolkien – movie review
- Scandinavian Film Festival 2017 – preview
- The United States vs Billie Holiday – movie review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television