Once an illegal homoerotica and porn artist, Touko Laaksonen became symbolic of his native Finland when his controversial artwork was awarded the highest accolade an artist could ever dream of receiving. After years of being derided, mocked and persecuted by the authorities for subverting younger men, his now iconic artwork became the first of its type to appear on a national postage stamp. In Tom of Finland, a pseudonym under which Laaksonen became known, acclaimed Finnish director Dome Karukoski tells the story of how a war hero from Helsinki came to symbolise gay liberation in America and around the world, some even crediting him with inventing the concept of “leather bars” and “the Castro clones”, two aesthetics which have become emblematic of LGBT history.
After fighting in WWII and returning home a decorated war hero, Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) is still shellshocked by his harrowing experiences serving his country. Disgruntled by post-war Helsinki which is rife with homophobia and gay persecution, Touko takes on a job in a publicity firm alongside his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky). In between work projects and illicit nocturnal encounters with men, he spends his free time drawing masculine figures with unnaturally inflated muscles and clad in tight-fitting leather garments. Pouring every secret sexual fantasy about his attraction to uniformed men into these drawings, they become an outlet for the artist and the few friends he shares his work with. Unable to publish freely in his native Finland, where homosexuality is illegal, Touko starts selling his intricate drawings abroad. Starting in Germany where a catastrophic encounter with a louche art dealer lands him in a prison cell, Touko soon discovers that his art is far more valuable in America than anywhere else in the world.
With a genuinely impressive representation of a post-war Helsinki, Karukoski manages to expertly capture the sense of dread and claustrophobia felt by his main protagonist during those times. His ability to convey Laaksonen’s inner monologue and daydreams is also immensely enriched by bringing Laaksonen’s biker creation, Kake (Niklas Hogner) to life. Perhaps the only time the story starts to lack verisimilitude is when we are transported to California, where the pace changes noticeably and the performances are somewhat less believable.
Pekka Strang does a fantastic job as Laaksonen; his playfully nuanced performance adds to the beautifully sedate way in which the story is told. It’s also worth mentioning Lauri Tilkanen’s fantastic turn as Veli, Touko’s long time partner and lover, whose feminine beauty and youthful looks are in direct contrast with Tom of Finland’s more masculine creations.
On the whole Tom Of Finland does a great job in chartering the life and work of one of the most unapologetic gay icons of the 20th century, and manages to make an argument for pornographic art and its legitimacy in the art world. From being held partly responsible for the AIDS epidemic by conservative America, to being exhibited at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art), no one could ever accuse Laaksonen of having had a classic career trajectory, and it is this very idea which is beautifully captured by Karukoski and his writers.
Tom of Finland is released on August 11th.