You probably don’t know the name Touko Laaksonen, but you’ve probably seen his artwork, what was once very underground that is now pretty mainstream. But when Laaksonen began drawing his highly erotic, hyper-real depictions of strong, handsome, gay men he had to use a pseudonym because such things were illegal at that time (the 1940s), so Touko became Tom, and eventually Tom of Finland.
The new movie Tom of Finland tells the life story of Touko Laaksonen starting with his service in the war. Touko (Pekka Strang) is forced to lead a closeted life in the service but he still has the urge to make drawing of the men in his platoon. He finds an ally in his captain after the two have an encounter in a park, and after the war he moves in with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), but he still keeps his personal life hidden from her. She helps him get a job at the ad agency she works for because of his exceptional artistic skills, but he still has needs and the only place to express those urges is, again, at a local park. There he meets a young man named Veli, who goes by Nipa (Lauri Tilkanen), but they are interrupted by a police raid. Later, Nipa happens to become Kaija’s new border but he denies he knows Touko when the subject is brought up. Nipa is a dancer and Touko takes in a performance that his sister is also attending. She obviously has eyes for Nipa, but the real chemistry is between him and Touka.
The two do strike up a relationship, and Touka continues his drawing. On a trip to Berlin, his artwork is stolen by someone he thought would help him get it published, but undeterred he sends more artwork to the publisher of Physique Pictorial in the US, who is the person who ultimately gave him the moniker Tom of Finland. The images became a sensation, as did Tom, and he was brought to the US to see firsthand the movement he inspired. But his life was not without tragedy, and the film covers Touko’s highs and lows.
Tom of Finland tells a compelling story about a compelling person — someone who was never publicly known as Touko Laaksonen until his death in 1991 because he agreed to never reveal his lifestyle and work for his family’s sake (Touko also had four brothers, but only his sister is depicted as a main character in the film). The film is well-made and well-acted but it is frustrating in the way events are depicted. The movie opens with an older Touko flashing back to his time in the war, a time when he was forced to kill a Russian paratrooper (something that haunted him for his entire life but is never fully fleshed out in the movie), when he formed a relationship with his captain, and then moving on to his life following the war. But the movie moves back and forth in time throughout the running time, frustratingly without any on screen text to tell you when something is happening. One minute it’s the 1950s, and then suddenly it’s the disco era of the 70s. It’s very hard to keep track of time. The only way you really know that we’re in a different era are the wigs and the unfortunate age makeup that just looks like rubber appliances used on Strang (everyone else is just aged with makeup to put dark circles under their eyes or to give their cheeks a sunken appearance). Also, the scenes of Touko drawing weren’t very convincing, looking more like someone just tracing over a print.
If you can overlook those things, the story is compelling enough to keep you engaged and interested in the life of Touko Laaksonen and the artwork of Tom of Finland. One of the more interesting facts brought up was how Tom’s artwork was blamed for the spread of AIDS in the 1980s and the burden Touko felt. It almost destroyed his career until he and his friends in California took control of the situation and launched a safe sex campaign featuring Tom’s artwork.
The new Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber looks and sounds terrific. The picture is sharp and clear with nice black levels that never lose the detail in the film’s many dark scenes. The audio is clear with dialog front and center, and the surrounds are used to immerse you in scenes of war and parties. Overall it’s a very nice presentation. The movie is also presented in its original Finnish language with English subtitles, with the scenes in the US in English.
The Blu-ray contains a handful of extras as well. There are four deleted scenes; a short history of Tom of Finland and the Tom of Finland Foundation, ‘Discussion at Tom’s House’; the ‘I Am Tom of Finland’ campaign featurette; an interview with Durk Dehner, co-founder of the Tom of Finland Company; and a short piece billed as a ‘Television Special’. Overall, a nice package to introduce you to the man known worldwide as Tom of Finland (whose artwork is also hanging in museums including MoMA in New York City).
As a companion piece to the movie, Kino Lorber has also released the Tom of Finland documentary Daddy and the Muscle Academy which was released just before Touko’s death in 1991. The film features an on camera interview with Touko (shot the year before he died from emphysema), interviews with the people who helped bring his artwork to the masses (including a very young Durk Dehner), real life depictions of men inspired by Tom’s work (so be prepared for some nudity), and close-up looks at the artwork (the documentary also fleshes out the paratrooper story briefly seen in the biopic). The Blu-ray looks amazing considering the budget and vintage, and my only complaint (not with the Blu-ray presentation) is the film’s annoying sound editing and mixing with voices often talking over one another and a constant loop of what sounds like a man groaning during the non-Touko interviews. English is the predominant language but Touko speaks Finnish and is subtitled. The Blu-ray also includes the full (subtitled) interview with Touko Laaksonen that runs more than 30 minutes longer than the actual documentary, and a gallery of over 100 Tom of Finland drawings (unfortunately set to a constant loop of the same piece of music — best to turn off the sounds to enjoy the images). Both Tom of Finland and Daddy and the Muscle Academy contain trailers for each film. I recommend watching the biopic movie first and then the documentary.
The films provide a fascinating insight into a man not many people outside his inner circle really knew. Both films have their problems, but I still found the subject and the man’s story fascinating, a piece of history that some younger people in the LGBT community may have forgotten with the freedoms that are enjoyed today.
Kino Lorber generously provided Hotchka with a Blu-ray versions of the films for reviewing purposes.