Film Review: Tom of Finland

Dome Karukoski's film examines the life of groundbreaking gay artist Touko Laaksonen, who found fame as Tom of Finland.
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Born in 1920, Touko Laaksonen grew up in a Finland where living a homosexual life mean risking violence, disgrace and imprisonment, but his art—which featured muscular, masculine and conspicuously well-endowed men, frequently in leather or skintight uniforms—both fueled secret fantasies and helped redefine popular ideas about what it meant to be gay and pave the way for later artists, including Domingo Orejudos (who worked under the pseudonym "Etienne"), George Quaintance and, later, Carl Corley and Dirk Vanden.

Laaksonen's (Pekka Strang) life was deeply closeted until after the start of World War II—perhaps evidence of wartime's notorious reputation for emboldening people to cast off social strictures when faced with the possibility of imminent death (the subject of David Hare's Plenty)—and provided abundant fuel for his fetishistic love of uniforms and the fit, muscular bodies they encased. A talented natural artist, Laaksonen honed his skills in art school in Helsinki and after the war followed his sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), into advertising while secretly filling sketchbooks with images of soldiers, lumberjacks, policemen and leather-clad bikers, who would remain a favorite subject throughout his life.

He found a lifelong companion in Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), a dancer, and in the 1950s began making sales to American physique magazines and adopted his famous pseudonym, while keeping his day job. By the 1970s he had finally found an American publisher (Seumas Sargent) and become famous in the increasingly open gay community.

Handsomely photographed and sensitively acted, Dome Karukoski's Tom of Finland situates Laaksonen's personal story within the larger context of gay life in mid-century Europe and the United States and makes clear how much his illustrations helped shape the now archetypal image of the gay leather man, a story that is, ironically, probably less thrilling now than it was in the days before gay culture expanded to include couples pushing baby carriages down the aisles at Walmart.

Without downplaying the very real dangers of being beaten, arrested, fired and ostracized by family and straight friends, Tom of Finland captures a sense of rebellious excitement generated in part by living an outlaw life just by loving someone of the same sex or wearing jackboots and leather trousers. And that said, it's still hard to imagine the U.S. postal service issuing a stamp set featuring gay cowboys and Native Americans—iconography rooted in American culture—while Laaksonen's homeland issued a popular Tom of Finland set in 2014.

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