Saturday 25 November 2017


You may not be immediately aware of who Tom of Finland was or his artwork, but it's unlikely you're unaware of the impact the work of Tom, AKA Touko Laaksonen has had on gay culture and fashion of the 1970s and 80s, and therefore most forms of popular entertainment. His intricately shaded pencil drawings of burly moustachioed men in leather and uniforms helped shaped the iconography of the era.

This biography starts with Touko (Pekka Strang) as a soldier fighting in World War II, hiding his homosexuality and engaging in illegal and dangerous sexual encounters with other soldiers. Returning home from the war to live with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), his attempts to come out to her are dismissed as him being confused and changed by the war. Opting to continue his sex life with unknown men in public bathrooms and wooded areas often raiding by the police, he uses his provocative, often pornographic drawings as calling cards to reveal his homosexuality to others. Spanning a long period of time from the Second World War to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, the secretive nature of Touko's life shares more in common with an espionage thriller like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, except the content of the articles being passed around is a little bit different.

Where the film falls down is in its exploration of the man as an artist. His wartime persona and the impact his killing of a Russian soldier had on him is well covered in the first half of the film, but the story is crying out for more to be revealed about his method and inspiration. This is better explored once Touko begins to understand his international, more mainstream appeal and flirts with the prospect of new horizons in the open atmosphere of California, but there's a lack of actual artwork on show, save for a few brief scenes of Touko sketching. Given that his images are so indelible, this is often a frustrating element of the film.

The film is respectful of Tom's legacy and of his romantic life with long term partner, Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), but some parts of the film have fallen for classic biography pitfalls, including some questionable old man make-up effects and a visit to foreign lands where everyone speaks with a certain Finnish twang. Thankfully this is largely forgivable, particularly when the film does so well at capturing the covert, secretive tone of Touko's earlier years.

A lot of the work seems tame and even quaint by today's standards (to the point where his work was celebrated in his native Finland by appearing on postage stamps), but the film makes clear that this was a different time that was unaccepting of his homosexuality, and that the images created by Touko were extremely dangerous to be in possession of. As told to him by one official, also leading a secret life, "it's not just a picture. It's an atomic bomb".

As an important artistic figure it's right that his life should be celebrated; it's just a pity the film didn't take a leaf out of Touko's book and sketch things out with more detail.


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