‘Tom of Finland’ a solid film about iconic gay artist

Lauri Tilkanen, Kaija Jessica Grabowsky and Pekka Strang star in “Tom of Finland.”

Lauri Tilkanen, Kaija Jessica Grabowsky and Pekka Strang star in “Tom of Finland.”

One can imagine that when Touko Laaksonen finally arrives in Los Angeles and realizes the full impact his work hath wrought, it went down much the way it did in Dome Karukoski’s living biopic “Tom of Finland.”

Operating in near secrecy in Finland during the 1950s and ’60s, working on nights and weekends around his gig in a Helsinki advertising firm, Laaksonen’s drawings of fearless, strong gay men captured the worldwide imagination of a culture in the closet. It’s not a stretch to say he helped create the leather culture — he was particularly fascinated by motorcycles, muscles and leather. (He ran a motorcycle club in Helsinki “without the motorcycles” — aka an underground gay nightclub.)

The effect was self-empowerment, confidence and strength of a culture viewed by mainstream society as “sissies.”

And yet, as portrayed by Pekka Strang, who deftly handles playing a character across five decades, Laaksonen was not much like, say, his comic book alter ego Kake. He was a mild-mannered advertising executive who lived with his lover, Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), and sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), also a talented artist who works at the same firm. The brother-sister dynamic is especially well-developed — she is a homophobe who loves her gay brother.

The film starts during World War II, when Touko is a lieutenant in the Finnish army. In Karukoski’s vision, Touko is affected most by a platonic relationship with a fellow officer, married and in the closet, and his killing of a Russian paratrooper on the field of battle. (He later assuages his guilt by imagining the dead Russian as magnificent, leather-clad hero in his drawings.)

Laaksonen tries peddling his drawings in the gay underground of Helsinki and Berlin at a time when not only was homosexuality illegal, but possession of such relatively benign (by today’s standards) drawings were as well.

“It’s just a drawing,” Tuoko says to his old war friend, now a dilpomat, after a run-in with authorities in Berlin.

“It’s not just a drawing,” his friend replies. “It’s an atomic bomb.”

It’s not until he sends an unsolicited envelope full of his work to Bob Mizer, the L.A. editor of Physique Pictorial magazine, that his career takes off. He signs his work “Tom,” as an Americanization of Touko, and Mizer had the genius stroke to create the rest of the pseudonym, Tom of Finland.

“Tom of Finland” is a good, strong movie, but never threatens to be great. One salivates at the adventurous directions the film could have explored.

Karukoski is obviously trying to appeal to the masses here. His re-creation of 1940s and ’50s Finland is top-notch, and Strang’s sensitive, dimensional portrayal relies on not so much words but presence — and that’s a really good thing.

Besides, it’s high time Tom of Finland becomes more known to the world. He was essentially the first gay manga artist, and his work was so influential and accomplished that many of the world’s great museums — including SFMOMA and the Berkeley Art Museum — have his art in their permanent collections.


“Tom of Finland”

Grade: B

Starring Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilkanen and Jessica Grabowsky. Directed by Dome Karukoski. In Finnish and English with subtitles.

Unrated. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 56 minutes.

Bottom line: A strong movie that is trying to appeal to the masses