'Tom of Finland': Film Review

Understated portrait of a tumescent talent.

Finnish director Dome Karukoski's prize-winning biopic celebrates the cult artist who brought hardcore gay sex imagery into the mainstream.

Touko Laaksonen was once an illegal underground porn artist, notorious in gay circles for his fetishistic fantasias of uniformed muscle men with square jaws, supernaturally swollen biceps and colossal phallic weaponry. But Laaksonen, who found belated fame under the alias Tom of Finland, is now globally respected as a pioneer of homoerotic iconography and a highly skilled artist in his own right. His instantly recognizable work is well-hung in prestigious galleries, including MOMA in New York, and has even been celebrated on Finnish postal stamps.

Tom of Finland chronicles Laaksonen's life in a thoughtful if conventional manner, with a lightly sanitized tone that feels oddly ill-suited to its protagonist's own supercharged porno-fascistic reveries. That said, director Dome Karukoski paints a mostly engaging portrait of a hugely influential figure in gay culture, who died in 1991. Already playing in domestic theaters after winning the FIPRESCI prize at Gothenburg Film Festival, Karukoski's respectful biopic screens in the Berlinale EFM later this week. A surefire booking for festivals with even a casual interest in LGBTQ themes, it should also have a readymade audience for niche distribution.

Growing up secretly gay in rural Finland, Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) serves in the military during World War II. A lethal confrontation with a handsome Russian paratrooper leaves him with a lifelong guilt complex while also, the film teasingly suggests, cementing his idealized vision of male beauty. After the war, while working as an illustrator for an advertising agency alongside his artistically gifted sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), he starts sketching private masturbatory fantasies based on stylized versions of the soldiers, farmers, lumberjacks and leather-clad bikers who shaped his formative erotic landscape. As homosexuality is still a criminal offense, Laaksonen's closeted sex life mostly consists of fraught nocturnal encounters in Helsinki parks and clandestine all-male orgies, where he routinely risks arrest and police brutality.

In 1953, Laaksonen finds enduring love with dancer Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), to the disappointment of an equally smitten Kaija. Soon afterwards his drawings start to gain an international profile via the homoerotic physical culture magazines that flourished before porn was legalized. As times change and homosexuality is widely decriminalized, his increasingly hardcore images are picked up by L.A.-based publisher Doug (Seumas Sargent), leading to belated commercial success in the 1970s and 1980s. Laaksonen starts spending more time in California, where the hypermasculine gay subculture that he helped create comes into full bloom just as the AIDS crisis explodes, plunging him into tortuous guilt over his complicity in the epidemic.

Tom of Finland suffers from minor pacing and structural issues, lingering too long on Laaksonen's episodic early development before finally making a jarring leap forward to his late-blooming fame. Aleksi Bardy's screenplay also suffers from some of the heavy-handed literalism that afflicts many biodramas: when a character coughs once, that is a sure signal that they will die five scenes later. Lean and laconic, Strang gives an agreeably sensitive performance, though it is light on psychological insight. It also stretches the skills of the film's makeup team to age him convincingly from 20 to 70.

Karukoski and Bardy are also surprisingly coy about depicting both male nudity and gay sex, which are out-and-proud in the drawings reproduced onscreen, but marginal within the drama itself. Laaksonen's controversial interest in Nazi soldiers, who provided some of his early erotic experiences, has also been carefully erased from the story. He was never a fascist, but exploring the transgressive forbidden fruit of BDSM fantasy was a key element of his artistic vision. Laaksonen freely admitted that he loved Nazis because "they had the sexiest uniforms."

Tom of Finland is a dutiful join-the-dots biopic that rightly shines a light on an important icon of LGBTQ culture. It falls short of the liberating, subversive power of Laaksonen's best work, and only skims the surface of the repressive political context that made it so necessary. But Karukoski's film is still a worthy and humane homage to one of Finland's more unorthodox national heroes.

Production company: Helsinki-Filmi Oy
Starring: Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilkanen, Jessica Grabowsky, Taisto Oksanen, Seumas Sargent, Jakob Oftebro, Niklas Hogner
Director: Dome Karukoski
Producers: Aleksi Bardy, Miia Haavisto, Annika Sucksdorff
Screenwriter: Aleksi Bardy
Cinematographer: Lasse Frank Johannessen
Editor: Harri Ylönen
Music: Hildur Guönadóttir, Lasse Enersen
Sales company: Protagonist Pictures, London
Not rated, 115 minutes