Tom of Finland Review
By Rich Cline
Finnish artist Tuoko Laaksonen used the name “Tom of Finland” as he drew explicit illustrations of sexy, muscly men, in the process changing the way the world looks at masculinity. He also defined the imagery of the gay subculture through the exaggerated machismo of soldiers, policemen, bikers and construction workers. Acclaimed Finnish filmmaker Dore Karukoski tells this story in an oddly fragmented way, covering half a century without offering much context. The film looks great, but feels like it kind of misses the point.
We first meet Tuoko (Pekka Strang) in 1940, as he worries that he will be arrested for being gay. Then he discovers a kindred spirit in his commanding officer (Taisto Oksanen). Knowing that his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky) wouldn’t be so understanding, Tuoko hides his sexuality from her, even after he begins a relationship with their lodger Veli (Lauri Tilkanen). Meanwhile, Tuoko is drawing sexy pictures of beefy men and signing them as “Tom”, sending them off to California for publication. And eventually, two of his biggest fans (Seumas Sargent and Jakob Oftebro) fly him out to show his pictures on a tour across America, where homosexuality is legal. This feels like paradise to Tuoko, who knows it will take many years before he can openly exhibit his work in his home country.
The film is gorgeously shot, with rich production design that plays with deep colours and bright sunshine. Over the decades, the characters don’t quite age properly, but Strang nicely plays Laaksonen’s gentle thawing as he begins to open up to himself and others about who he is. He’s so reticent and private that he’s hard to get to know, which makes him rather icy as a movie protagonist. But Strang injects some dark humour here and there, even if his sexuality and relationships are so fragmented that they remain largely off-screen.
Indeed, the main problem with this film is that Karukoski seems to want to understate Laaksonen’s sexuality, even though his artwork overstates it so elaborately. This means that it never quite makes sense why Laaksonen ends up as the godfather of the leather fetish world. That said, the film does offer a telling account of how his imagery became so iconic both within the gay scene and in the wider world. Tom of Finland illustrations essentially created the musclehead work-out culture that defines how the world views masculinity. So in a way, Laaksonen can take the credit (or the blame) for everything from Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Fast & Furious franchise.
Starring: Pekka Strang as Touko Laaksonen, Lauri Tilkanen as Veli, Jakob Oftebro as Jack, Werner Daehn as Müller, Christian Sandström as Kari, Niklas Hogner as Kake, Jessica Grabowsky as Kaija, Taisto Oksanen as Alijoki, Seumas F. Sargent as Doug, Martin Bahne as Gabriel