Tom of Finland (18)
Finland/Sweden/Denmark 2017 114 mins Subtitles Dir: Dome Karukoski Cast: Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilkanen, Jessica Grabowsky, Taisto Oksanen, Seumas Sargent, Jakob Oftebro, Niklas Hogner
War, AIDS, cancer, homophobia . . . there are certainly some heavy-duty themes tackled in this biopic of Touko Laaksonen. But director Dome Karukoski doesn’t permit his jolly, entertaining film to become weighed down by any of them. Some may find this – and Karukoski’s oddly coy approach to actual gay sex as opposed to comically exaggerated drawn representations of it – to be problematic. But it also ensures the widest possible audience for his illuminating account of the chap who, having been recast as Tom of Finland, was responsible for the influential homoerotic iconography that shaped the images of George Michael, Freddie Mercury, Rob Halford and that biker cop fella out of the Village People.
Despite its horrors, WWII is a time of exciting if risky sexual discovery for the closeted young Laaksonen (Strang). But on returning home, he finds the country he served as a soldier remains forbiddingly homophobic, with assignations in parks liable to be broken up by brutal, truncheon-wielding cops. Our hero takes some small satisfaction in using these uniformed tormentors as inspiration for his erotic fanstasy art, in which buff, square-jawed, muscular gentlemen engage in manly horseplay, their enormous bulging phalluses only occasionally contained by tight-fitting leather. Laaksonen shares an apartment with his sweetly naïve sister Kaija (Grabowsky), who’s somewhat surprised to learn of his unapologetic homosexuality but is determined to look on the bright side. “The war made you like that, but it’ll pass,” she reassures him. Alas for her, this proves wildly optimistic when hunky dancer Nipa (Tilkanen), whom she takes on as a lodger in the hope of sparking a romance of her own, proves rather more susceptible to her brother’s charms.
Drab old ’50s Finland then gives way to technicolour, anything-goes ’70s LA when US pornographers embrace Laaksonen’s art. After a brief debate, they decide to market him as Tom of Finland. “Tom of Sweden would sell more,” muses one. “But it seems Finland has bigger cocks,” objects another, admiringly. Meanwhile back home, Nipa has developed one of those Ominous Movie Coughs.
Pekka Strang contributes an engaging central performance, making the best of unobtrusive aging make-up as the film undergoes occasionally abrupt temporal shifts. One can understand why Karukoski didn’t want to dwell on the regressive AIDS crisis-era backlash against Tom’s lusty lunks, which would have provided a downer of a full-stop had his film been made 30 years ago, but this section still feels rushed as he races towards a celebratory, disco-soundtracked ending.
There are compensations in the film’s sly sense of fun. One particularly entertaining sequence unfolds at a gay Boogie Nights-style Californian pool party where Tom-inspired leather clones batter one another playfully with large inflatable penises. When the cops burst in gun-handed, Tom fears the worst – understandably, given his experiences with the police back home. But these impeccably polite rozzers are after a fleeing suspect and don’t bat an eyelid at the homosexual frolics being enjoyed by chaps clad in fetish versions of their own uniforms. Refreshingly too, Aleksi Bardy’s screenplay refuses to get wrapped up in the hand-wringing liberal ‘art or porn?’ debate over Tom’s caricatured strapping randy beefcakes. “My cock is the boss,” remarks the artist matter-of-factly of his creations. “I have to have a hard-on – then I know it’s good.”
But perhaps one shouldn’t under-estimate the drawings’ perceived continued power to shock and offend. This is a pretty tame film, with virtually no sex and very little nudity, which has nonetheless been landed with an 18 certificate by the BBFC for its “strong sexualised images”.