And who is Tom of Finland? Probably best to ask this question and to do a bit of homework before deciding to see this portrait of an artist. It is also the Finish nomination for Oscar consideration.
There are three approaches to viewing this film.
First, it is the portrait of a significant Finish artist, Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991). We first see him in action during World War II, the Finnish army supporting the Russians. After the war, he has a job as a commercial artist in an advertising company. He begins to do more personal sketches and, later sends them to the United States where they are accepted and he becomes famous and something of a celebrity.
Secondly, the film can be seen as a social study of homosexuality during the 20th century. Tom of Finland was a gay man, in the closet in a very strict Finland, living part of his life in a gay underground, finally finding some freedom of movement and expression in the United States.
Thirdly, the film can be seen as the controversial work of a gay artist, his drawings, their content, style, popularity in the gay community, there becoming icons. The film also raises the issue of the art, its expressions and influence and the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s.
Touko Laaksonen played by Pekka Strang, first seen as a soldier in his 20s, then moving through the decades and, with effective make up, the same actor portraying the artist in his 50s and 60s. He is not a man who is easy to warm to, personally. He has suffered trauma during the war, even to the killing of a Russian parachutist which had quite an effect on him and is shown in the film. He has bad experiences from the police during a visit to Berlin. He also experiences police raids on homosexuals in parks and in bars and in private homes. There is a certain coldness and detachment about his personality.
He lives with his sister, also a commercial artist, and when she takes in a 21 year-old boarder, he is infatuated but keeps undercover, not wanting to live separately with the boarder who is a professional dancer.
As regards the criminalisation of homosexuality and homosexual behaviour, the film shows much of social homophobia, expressions of hate, the sometimes vicious police raids and interrogations. It can be seen how the decriminalisation of homosexuality had a more positive effect in society and for individuals. (There is an amusing sequence when Tom of Finland goes to California and is present in the gay community when the police suddenly rush in – not to arrest the men as he presumes but searching for a thief who robbed a bank down the street!)
Many of us may have seen Tom of Finland sketches as illustrations but not recognised them as the work of a single artist what their original intent was. While he could not publish them in Finland, American magazines on Physical Culture put them on the cover and then they were adopted by the gay community. He sketched over 3000 drawings. They are of men, caricature sketches in the sense that they are huge chested, thin waisted, large buttocked, with prominent sexual organs and sexual behaviour. Tom had a penchant for uniforms, military (even the Nazi uniforms, but not Nazism), police, leather and bikie. They were widely circulated from the 1970s and used in all kinds of illustration, in advertising.
The question is raised for Tom when AIDS emerges and his sketches are criticised, singled out as promoting sexual permissiveness which leads to AIDS. He acknowledged this but then turned his attention to the sketches campaigning against behaviour which led to AIDS.
The film offers quite a deal to think about, the portrait of the artist, the social context in which lived, his work and the issues of pornography, but it does provide a look at transitions in the 20th century, which have had social consequences for greater freedoms in the 21st century.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting