Artistic expression as means of self-determination and liberation from oppression is explored to poignant effect in Tom of Finland, Dome Karukoski’s biographical feature on the life and pioneering work of homoerotic fetish artist Touko Laaksonen.
Arcing from his involvement in World War II, through his development in the 1950s and 60s, and onto the height of his popularity later in life, the film aims to fit a great deal into its two-hour runtime. Bookended by an amusing exchange about a rabbit as Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) prepares to speak to an adoring fanbase, Tom of Finland is imbued with playfulness but not the cutting edge, and bravery, of its eponymous leading man.
Though the nearly half-dozen writing team who were involved in the story and script may make for a certain lack of contextual clarity and narrative purpose, Karukoski does paint Touku’s emotional and artistic development extremely well and Strang’s performance is one of a slowly, timidly blossoming flower. Tentative looks of longing at a handsome fellow soldier as the Finnish forces take an ice cold midwinter dip in a lake; illicit sexual acts in an alleyway and hidden away in parks late at night; the creation of a secretive ‘Poker’ group of men with shared desires that provides a sense of safety in numbers, a reassurance that they are not alone. Touko meanders unsteadily, curiously into the unknown in the first half and the film treads similarly tentative ground.
Brutal treatment by police, and a less than compassionate reaction to a painful admission by his sister sees Touko dip toes in water before being able to take the plunge. Life-long support from Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), briefly the sharp point in a familial love triangle, and the evolution, honing and ever-growing appreciation for his work sees the artist, as well as the film, come into their own after the mid-way point. The proliferation of his images – of muscled, well-endowed and more often than not scantily clad macho men, whether art or smut depending on viewpoint – transforms from being a manner of excising demons, confusion and anger at mistreatment, to an absolute necessity in making a stand for a maligned community.
Stunned and uncomprehending at the reception he receives when invited to California, hope for a brighter future grows exponentially in Touko as the movement progresses but the beginnings of the AIDS crisis, and the vicious ignorance of the time, leaves a real sting in the tail. Karukoski provides broad strokes in Tom of Finland, but not the areas of shade and detail to compare with the meticulous and graphic work of his subject. But thanks to Pekka Strang’s leading performance, this is a worthwhile testament to a reluctant national hero.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens