NOW SHOWING: TOM OF FINLAND (2017) — General Release — UK.
d. Dome Karukoski
There are many reasons why we stay for the very last credit and the general ignominy of having the house lights thrown back in our faces. It’s partly because, having creative careers ourselves, we feel a solidarity with the anonymous down-list talent. It’s also a handy time to find stuff out.
At the very end of the scroll for TOM OF FINLAND is notice that the biopic is part of the country’s centenary celebrations. This says much about a scandi sensibility that now embraces erotic artist Touko Laaksonen as one of the country’s most legendary exports (he even gets stamps). It also partly explains why the movie rigidly adheres – like a slave strapped into his harness – to ‘handsome biopic’ formulae.
Given the 18 rating, we were left wanting more than the jangling cluster of limp dicks taking an icy skinny dip near the start of the movie (however lovely those were). What we get is a mainstream artwork facing the unenviable challenge of portraying the life and legacy of a truly transgressive artist. Despite being robustly well made and engaging throughout, TOM OF FINLAND suffers from being too polite and, at times, self-harmingly sombre.
Only rarely does the film tip over into exuberance as the local demand for leather goods increases and Touko meets more liberated gays by the American poolside. Instead we trudge through the war, endless cruising in the dark and the double whammy – in what becomes a confusing timeline – of throat cancer and AIDS. Now, we’re more than happy to be told that real life Laaksonen led a tortured existence (we don’t know any better) but the final sequence of always scowling Touko (Pekka Strang) surrounded by leather men seems to cut to a pic of actual Touko, beaming. So the great man did smile, if only once…
Dome Karukoski’s film is well acted and never looks anything less than handsome. But it seems as shyly determined to avoid the forces that Tom’s artwork unleashed as his fearfully homophobic sister.
Putting its nervous portrayal of homosex aside, the film is much stronger in showing how Tom’s drawings escaped his elicit portfolio, through both legal and bootleg means. Stolen in Germany, embraced and published by the USA, Tom’s pencil lines moved from brown-paper envelop exchange to glorious print and public profile. For homo children of the 1970s and 80s like us, his joyous imagery provided the stimulus for many a teenage hand down the trousers, a leathery counterpoint to Pierre et Gille’s bacchanalian camp.
We first discovered Tom on the covers of Phil Andros’ splendidly erotic fictions*, spending many a pre-internet hour with titles like MY BROTHER, MY SELF and ROMAN CONQUESTS.
Probably more than any other visual artist – demigod Jarman aside – these images and their accompanying texts gave us a profound sense of homosexuality as a positive life force.
Ultimately, we didn’t grow up to be anything like a ‘Tom’s Man’, being far too fond of sliding into a velvet cinema seat to slip on a leather jacket. But we did graduate the era with a healthy attitude to sex and a determination, as Tom’s dying lover (Lauri Tilkanen) in the film puts it, to:
“Make sure everyone knows we exist.”
In a year when the UK is grappling with its own legacy of criminalised sexuality and much of the rest of the world has yet to even be bothered, you should catch up with TOM OF FINLAND to be reminded of how freedom finds a way.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- TOM OF FINLAND on IMDb
- The Gay UK rather agrees with us.
- Finland Today praises the film’s focus on “identity, relationships, sexual desires and society’s constraints”. You can even give the film your own star rating (neat!).
- Try 1991 doc DADDY & THE MUSCLE ACADEMY which puts much more of Tom’s highly erotic artwork on display.
Featured image: TOM OF FINLAND (2017).
*Another pseudonym – real life Samuel Steward.