Frank and moving, the biographical drama “Tom of Finland” tells the too-weird-to-be-fiction story of the artist credited with creating some of the enduring icons for gay men around the world.
As a lieutenant in the Finnish Army during World War II, Touko Laaksonen (played by Pekka Strang) became fascinated with the masculinity of men in uniform. As a gay man, in a time when being gay was illegal and considered a disease, he sometimes had the opportunity to see some of his fellow officers out of uniform, in furtive meetings in the woods.
After fighting Stalin’s army and enduring the presence of Nazi troops in Finland, Touko went back to private life, creating advertising campaigns and living with his sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky). On the sly, he continued to solicit sex in parks with men, avoiding the occasional police raid, where the cops would savagely beat homosexuals.
At home, Touko drew comically exaggerated images of beefy men, often in military or police uniforms — and, nearly as often, in nothing at all. He became fascinated with motorcycle culture and drew muscular men all in leather. In one scene, he buys himself a leather jacket and explores the secret gay bars where these motorcycle men would meet.
His drawings would get him arrested in Finland and nearly get him imprisoned on a trip to Berlin. When Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), a boarder Kaija lets into their apartment who becomes Touko’s longtime lover, urges Touko to display his art, he refuses. But he does find another way: Signing his works with the pseudonym “Tom,” Touko surreptitiously mails some drawings to a publisher in America. The publisher adds the “of Finland” to his name, and they become a staple in the gay-porn “sporting magazines” of the 1950s and 1960s.
Touko receives fan letters from America and decides to visit. There, chaperoned by a free-spirited gay couple in Southern Calfornia, Doug (Seamus F. Sargent) and Jack (Jakob Oftebro), Touko discovers a gay community that’s more open and accepted than his crowd back home in Finland. He also sees that his leather-wearing figures have become a template for a whole way of life (and, years later, the inspiration for at least two of the Village People).
Finnish director Dome Karukoski and screenwriter Aleksi Bardy do not sugarcoat Laaksonen’s life, either in the harsh treatment of homosexuals in Europe or the rejection of his art and sexuality even from his sister. Their depiction of the wilder life in America seems a tad cartoonish, but no more so than most European movies’ view across the Atlantic.
Anchored by a soulful performance by Strang that spans 40 years of Laaksonen’s life, “Tom of Finland” is a fascinating look at a chapter in the history of gay culture. Karukoski may be aiming his film at that culture, but the rest of us will learn a few things, too.
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Tom of Finland
A thoughtful, and frankly adult, look at a Finnish artist who created some of the indelible icons of gay culture.
Where • Tower Theatre (Salt Lake City).
When • Opens Friday, Nov. 10.
Rating • Not rated, but probably NC-17 for strong sexuality and drawings of graphic male nudity.
Running time • 115 minutes; in English, and Finnish with subtitles.
Correction: An earlier version of this review mischaracterized the German army's presence in Finland during World War II.