TOM OF FINLAND
Director: Dome Karukoski
Screenwriters: Dome Karukoski and Aleksi Bardy
Seumas F. Sargent
Country: Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Iceland and USA
Classification: R 18+
Runtime: 115 mins.
Australian Release Date: 12 October 2017
Previewed at: The Reel Room, Sydney, on 29 September 2017.
Proving how suppression creates provocation, a country in which homosexuality was illegal until 1971 and not allowed to be ‘promoted’ until the late 1990s, produced the most acclaimed homoerotic artist of the 20th century, Tom of Finland. His real name was Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) and he spent a large portion of his life, certainly from the 1940s to the ‘60s, keeping his sexuality under wraps from the authorities, who appeared to be on constant alert for any sign of gay behaviour, and his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), with whom he shared his daily living routine and his gift for drawing.
Karukoski’s biopic Tom of Finland details Laaksonen’s life from the early years of suppression and his first furtive encounters during the Second World War. It then follows his career in advertising for the Helsinki branch of McCann Erickson, where he worked alongside his sister, through to his late-in-life fame in California. That's when his explicit, homoerotic images of leather-clad men became the most iconic illustrations of gay art and life in the world. The artist’s beautifully shaded black-and-white figures were not only stunning, but absolutely unique.
The film spends an inordinate amount of time covering the early years and only really comes alive when Laaksonen forms a relationship with a young dancer, Veli (Lauri Tilkanen). The two men move in together but still have to be discreet, only acting as their true selves behind closed curtains. Finally, when Laaksonen receives an invitation from an American publisher, Doug (Seumas F. Sargent), to come to the West Coast, the story kicks into top gear. The scene when he arrives at the airport and is picked up in a big black limousine replete with leather-clad occupants is lots of fun and, from that moment on, ‘Tom’ finds himself caught up in a very liberal, open-minded gay society, a far cry from his life back home in Finland.
Tom of Finland received a standing ovation when it premiered in its country of origin. It was apparently a cathartic experience for many of the gay men in the audience who were at last able to stand up and be counted without fear of being locked away for being themselves. Director Karukoski has said that, “A big motivation for wanting to do the film for me was that this is a story about freedom of speech. It is very much about the freedom to be who you are.” The irony is, decades later, society is still coming to grips with freedom of expression and human rights for all; witness some of the intolerant opinion coming from the ‘no’ campaign during Australia’s same sex marriage debate at the moment. Tom of Finland has its faults: big leaps are made in the non-linear editing and characters occasionally suffer as a result, losing definition. It feels at times as though you need to be familiar with the details of Laaksonen’s life before viewing the movie. Overall though, the film is a valiant effort and should be celebrated for telling a tale of courage in the face of adversity.