This biopic of celebrated gay icon Touko Valio Laaksonen (known to many as Tom of Finland, played by Pekka Strang) is smartly made by Finnish director Dome Karukoski, whose feature treads on the heels of a well-received documentary released in 1991.
The film spans numerous years of Touko’s life, from his time serving as a soldier at the tail end of World War II to the HIV/AIDS crisis. First introduced as a man of few words haunted by the war who lives with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowksy) in Helsinki, Touko’s only way of sexual satisfaction is in the woods late at night, with the risk of imprisonment ever looming due to the fact homosexuality is illegal. An artist unable to properly express or represent himself and people, Touko starts to draw cartoons of highly sexualised men, typically bulging with muscles and baring their body parts.
It’s in this time he begins a love affair with Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), the new lodger whom his sister also has an interest in. Veli pushes Touko to send the drawings overseas, convinced they’ll have more traction in the vastly more liberal countries. The success this brings sends Touko to Los Angeles and New York City, where cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannessen’s previously darkened colour scheme makes way to bright, heightened primes like reds and yellows, Touko able to express himself more freely, both emotionally and sexually. Karukoski’s biopic treats the man in question with respect, keen to introduce him to an audience who may not be familiar with the work he did that changed so many peoples’ lives, encouraging them to be who they were and not suffer in silence. The first half perhaps could have delved deeper into Touko’s psychological state, instead inspecting his immediate post-war years as more a necessary slog to overcome before the party starts.
And what a party it is. The film certainly opens up in its latter section, Touko becoming one with himself, seeing the first-hand the effect his drawings have on others. He builds relationships with two men in particular: Doug (Seumas F. Sargent), arguably his biggest fan who’s responsible for bringing him over to America; and Jack (Jakob Oftebro), the supremely handsome boyfriend of Doug’s, and the first of them to contract the AIDS virus.
The performances are handled with care. Laaksonen appears to have been the perfect choice for Touko, who’s able to tap into his tender side, as well as the one with a bit of fight in him. But what’s best is how playful the film can be at times. Much of what happens is dark, such as the imprisonment of men for no reason but their sexuality and the awful AIDS/HIV crisis that impacted on the gay community – and overall world itself – is only hinted at here, yet there’s comedy to be had, as well as romance and the obvious thrill that comes with fetishised drawings Tom of Finland is so rightly honoured for.