Screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017
Biopics are hard. Director Dome Karukoski admits as much in the pre-screening talk. There’s the tricky issue of whether to attempt to faithfully represent true events, or to produce something emotionally true. Of course, there has to be a balance. Ultimately, Tom of Finland gets this right.
The film follows cult 20th century erotic artist Touko Laaksonen’s life in both Finland and America, charting his rise to bona fide gay icon surrounded by adoring fans in LA. His art ends up displayed in galleries – and now hangs in the MOMA – and all this from ‘dirty pictures’ handed out at secretive parties and passed riskily under the doors of Finnish public toilets. Pekka Strang is convincing as the formidable Touko, and there is palpable chemistry between him and his boyfriend (played by Lauri Tilkanen).
Tom of Finland is filled with belly-laughs and knowing winks to the audience. During one scene, Tom photographs an unsuspecting colleague with his hand suggestively grasped around the handlebar of a motorcycle. Tom’s boyfriend watches, eating a hot dog with a wink. The casting of many of the extras are overt references to Tom’s characters, with their big frames and huge muscles. It’s clear that Tom drew on the men he encountered for his caricatured drawings. The film reflects that, with the effective use of an imagined leather daddy character, Kake (Niklas Hogner) interacting with characters, winking at Touko and providing him with plenty of inspiration for future sketches.
Despite this levity, Karukoski does not shy away from traumatic events in Touko’s life. Inevitably for an LGBT+ film set in the 20th Century there is plenty that is hard to watch. Touko navigates life, sex and death as a soldier in the Second World War; must deal with homophobic abuse – including state sanctioned police abuse – in 40s and 50s Finland; and loses friends and his long-term partner during the AIDS crisis. These challenges are presented respectfully, but don’t feel laboured. In fact, the film is filled with many moments of warmth and humanity, especially in the later scenes between Oftebro and Strang.
Laaksonen truly lived an amazing life, making it a hard task to fit it into two hours. Tom of Finland is an assured and important picture, illuminating the extraordinary life of a truly iconic gay artist. Moments in it do feel unfortunately prescient, despite taking place fifty years ago, and there can be frightening parallels drawn between Touko’s treatment by the state and current events in Chechnya. While Dome Karukoski does want us to make this connection, he also has a lighter word of advice: ‘after this film, go drink, dance, and have sex. It’s what Tom would have wanted’. He’s right.
Tom Of Finland will be released in UK cinemas on 11 August.
Image: Mikko Rasila (courtesy of Protagonist Pictures)