When Finnish war hero Touko Laaksonen first started drawing fetishized depictions of leather-clad bikers and uniformed men, few knew that the young artist was bringing a new gay subculture to life. In fact, no one knew. That’s because in 1950’s Finland, the artwork Touko Laaksonen sketched in the privacy of his apartment was considered illegal.
Upon the Centennial celebration of Finland, award-winning filmmaker Dome Karukoski presents a moving biopic of one of the country’s most beloved sons. Tom of Finland is a roughly 115 minute biographical dramatization that aims to reveal the creative genius behind the famous homoerotic illustrations. Shot across 3 different countries, the film presents nearly 50 years of Laaksonen’s life, from his time in the war until his death in 1991.
After spending his early years hiding his sexuality, Touko Laaksonen (played by Pekka Strang) is pulled into World War II alongside most men his age. While encamped with his battalion, Touko notices a Russian scout parachuting from the sky. Touko tracks the Russian and kills him swiftly with a knife – an act that proved to be both a source of immense guilt and inspiration of male beauty throughout Touko’s life.
In the years following the war, Touko finds work as an art director for an advertising agency. He works and lives with his sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabosky), a talented artist in her own right. Protected by the four walls of his bedroom, Touko privately begins sketching fantastical illustrations of chiseled men – police, soldiers, and bikers. However, his sketchbook remains hidden, as homosexuality and the depictions of homosexual acts are considered criminal acts in the post-war years. As a result, Touko finds he must indulge his sexual desires in private, sketching alone in his room or engaging in secret all-male sex parties.
After keeping his secret for years, Touko starts to gain some limited notoriety when his work is published in early pornographic magazines. It is here where he takes the alias “Tom of Finland,” perhaps to spare his sister the shame that may fall upon her should the family name be associated with such contraband artwork. By the 1970’s, “Tom of Finland” is a household name among the gay subculture of California, thanks to an American publisher, Doug (Seumas Sargent), and his lover Jack (Jakob Oftebro). Touko travels to California and discovers an openly gay wonderland of leather and muscle, greatly inspired by his illustrative works.
Artfully captured, Dome Karukoski’s shot composition and color is simply magnificent. Many scenes are elegantly presented, while still maintaining the intricate details required for success in period filmmaking. Though little is known of Touko Laaksonen’s everyday life, Karukoski and screenplay writer Aleksi Bardy manage to portray an honest and intimate story of a complex artist struggling with both his art and his sexuality.
Fans of Tom of Finland’s artwork may be disappointed in the lack of overtly masculine sexuality, but this is a story about the artist rather than the art. The real Tom of Finland was a talented illustrator and a sensitive man, haunted by guilt and struggling to throw off the shackles of shame that post-war society had placed upon him. Audiences will be delighted to find a very humane story in this film, set against the backdrop of a gay subculture that emerged and matured alongside the hyper masculine drawings of Tom of Finland.
Read our interview with Dome Karukoski
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Protagonist Pictures