Tom of Finland review – intriguing biopic of a gay liberation hero

Pekka Strang stars as the Finnish wartime artist Touko Laaksonen, whose homoerotic illustrations helped create the iconography of gay culture

Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen, known by his nom de plume Tom of Finland, is brought above the radar of cultural history in this well-acted biopic.

In postwar Helsinki, in conditions of the gravest illegality, Laaksonen produced thousands on thousands of homoerotic fetish illustrations, showing bulgingly endowed leather-clad guys having an unapologetic good time. Tom of Finland’s work reached the liberated US in the 1960s via mail order, and he became a counterculture hero of gay liberation, virtually inventing a whole language of hedonism that influenced Queen, the Village People and the club scene.

Pekka Strang is very good as Tom; the movie suggests that he was traumatised by his wartime experiences – Finland being a co-belligerent of Hitler’s axis powers. The film shows a perhaps imagined episode of Laaksonen killing a Russian parachutist. But something in his creative alchemy responded to the brutality of Nazis and Soviets in uniform, and then to the uniforms of the police employed to break up cottaging in the parks. His eroticism subversively reclaimed these styles.

So what was Tom of Finland, ultimately? A gay version of R Crumb? Not exactly. Interestingly, the movie doesn’t locate a happy ending for him in being accepted by the contemporary art establishment: a much-discussed exhibition never happens in this film. Tom of Finland is perhaps closer to the 50s fetish pinup Bettie Page.

Either way, this drama suggests his importance is in something less culturally high-flown: simply being a rock’n’roll standard-bearer for gay men, he was the means by which happiness could be achieved. It is arguably a structural problem that the movie ends just as the HIV-Aids debate begins, with Laaksonen depicted fearing that he will be blamed, and rather earnestly promoting condom use.

Still: an intriguing demonstration of how eroticism in gay culture became overt, while straight porn retains its furtiveness and hiddenness.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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