Tom of Finland review: Biopic of gay artist finally finds its theme

Tom of Finland review: Biopic of gay artist finally finds its theme

CTC, 114 minutes

Before the Village People, there was Tom of Finland, a Finnish artist whose homoerotic drawings of muscle-bound men in leather found favour with the tastemakers of California's gay scene in the 1960s and early '70s.

Touko Laaksonen was his real name and he liked to put his sexually voracious – and spectacularly endowed – figures in police and military uniforms until he saw Marlon Brando in The Wild One and added a line in bikie fetish wear to his repertoire.

For years, the threat of prosecution prevented his work from being shown in his home country. Then the moral pendulum began to swing. By 1991, he was being lionised and his work was published on a set of stamps. This biopic by director Dome Karukoski has become a Finnish hit – the country's official entry for next year's Foreign Film Oscar. Give it time and the establishment embraces everything.

Pekka Strang's performance as Touko Laaksonen involves a lot of long silences.

Pekka Strang's performance as Touko Laaksonen involves a lot of long silences.

Photo: Josef Persson

The film begins in the war years with Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) serving as an officer, fighting the Russians, in the Finnish army. On his return home, his talent as an artist wins him a job at the advertising agency, McCann Erickson, where he eventually becomes art director. But his personal life is not nearly as successful. He regularly risks arrest by frequenting a gay beat in one of Helsinki's public parks and hides his drawings until his luck finally turns. A gay magazine in the US starts using his work and he finds happiness with a lover who is willing to move to the US with him.

Karukoski makes grim work of this chapter. Strang's performance involves a lot of long silences and moody cigarette smoking and the dour tone of it all sits oddly with the playful nature of Laaksonen's creations with their Mills and Boon profiles and phalluses the size of barge poles. It's only when he and his partner move to America that things lighten up under the influence of California's sunshine and the equally sunny attitudes of his American patrons. It's the permissive era and somehow he has landed in the perfect place to bask in its glories.

Naturally, it can't last. With the arrival of AIDS, everything changes and the film at last finds its theme. The gleeful tone of defiance embodied in Laaksonen's drawings can now be read as an eloquent reply to the puritanical backlash that comes in the wake of the epidemic. And the denouement takes on all the warmth, wit and energy that have been conspicuously absent from the rest of the film.

Karukoski is soon to direct a biopic of J. R. R. Tolkien. I hope he can find something there to smile about.

Sandra Hall

Sandra Hall is the author of two novels (A Thousand Small Wishes and Beyond the Break), two histories of the Australian television industry (Supertoy and Turning On, Turning Off) and Tabloid Man, a biography of Ezra Norton, the man who established Truth and The Daily Mirror. She was film critic at The Bulletin magazine prior to joining The Sydney Morning Herald in 1996.

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