Tom of FinlandCultureCinemaMovie reviews
Finnish director Dome Karukoski’s award-winning (FIPRESCI prize) biopic follows the cult artist Touko Laaksonen, a once illegal, underground homoerotic artist from Finland. Under the alias Tom of Finland he was (and most certainly still is) considered a pioneer in the liberation of gay rights throughout the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st century, even after his death in 1991.
Growing up in rural Finland – and an extremely conservative environment – Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) serves in the military; a considerable part of the first half of the movie is given to scenes (set in the form of flashbacks) showing the protagonist’s involvement in the war as a gay man. Once the conflict has ended, Laaksonen returns home to live with his equally gifted sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), where his homoerotic fantasies and fetishes grow with extreme passion and intensity. In his drawings he depicts highly stylised versions of soldiers, lumberjacks, bikers and police officers, each with a strong sense of authority about them, and this is certainly emphasised with their equally authoritarian batons, truncheons and other vivid phallic symbols protruding not solely from the fictional characters’ holsters. Returning from the war, Laaksonen experiences the oppressive regime in Finland in which homosexuality is a criminal offence, and he resorts – as do many men like him – to nocturnal encounters in Helsinki parks, whilst at the same time trying to stay away from routine police checks and subsequent brutality.
After meeting Veli (Lauri Tilkanen) who convinces Laaksonen to display his drawings on an international scale, the artist’s profile explodes in California, and he takes advantage of this by publishing his artwork in homoerotic physical culture magazines, magazines which flourished – both mainstream and underground – before pornography was legalised. Here, the film masterfully juxtaposes the older, harsh regimes of Laaksonen’s life in Finland, with the liberal and colourful Los Angeles of the 1960s and 70s. We witness the protagonist observe LA from inside a car; one particular sequence encapsulates both the excitement and bewilderment a homosexual man must feel coming from a country where two men holding hands in public was more than frowned upon.
Tom of Finland also deals with the AIDs crisis, and how Laaksonen’s artwork was stigmatised at a disastrous point in American history. But this is only touched upon, as perhaps too much time is granted for earlier sequences. The film also does not delve much into the palpability of the repression against gay men, and just falls short in representing the political context. Nonetheless, Karukoski’s movie shines a well-deserved, colourful light on a defining cultural and homosexual icon of the late 20th century.
Tom of Finland is released nationwide on 11th August 2017.
Watch the trailer for Tom of Finland here: