Tom of Finland might not be the movie you’re expecting it to be, but it’s the movie it needs to be. This quiet masterpiece of a biopic assumes that the viewer already knows how the story ends, with its eponymous protagonist becoming a living legend of progressive gay culture in the late 20th century, an artist whose critical and popular claim both celebrated and transcended its context. Tom’s art was boldly proud and beautiful in a specific way that demanded respect for his community, making sure as his partner says in the film, “that everyone knows we exist,” while at the same time, the work was also just so undeniably original and fresh and exuberant that no one could resist its charms. Based only on the art, one might anticipate more of a romp from this film — and there is romping; but its true power lies in its strange subtleties and in Tom himself, an unexpectedly unassuming army vet and urbane ad guy whose inherent sense of dignity and justice combines with his talent to make him exceptional.
Tom (whose real name is Touko Laaksonen, here played wonderfully by Pekka Strang) lives in Helsinki with his sister after returning from duty in WW2. It’s a stylish, jazzy time, but being gay is a crime punishable by shame, violence, and imprisonment. He makes his drawings in private, showing them to the same strangers in the same underground clubs where he risks persecution to live life on his terms. He is a quiet, pensive, lanky man with an awkward mustache — the last person, to look at him, that his drawings of muscle-bound leather daddy adonises would conjure. He’s frankly adorable, and the actor in the lead role is a master of telegraphing the roiling emotions of a secret inner life. As one after another he enacts quiet gestures of resistance and pride, it is always a surprise. Over the course of the film, we see him grow not only as an artist, but as a sometimes lonely but always determined pioneer of an out and proud future he never enjoyed in his homeland.
Those parts of the film set during his mostly-closeted Helsinki life (almost the entire first half and significant flashbacks throughout) are shot with sensitivity and iconically Arctic cinematography that is moody, painterly, with rich shadows, saturated earth tones, cold streets, and warm interiors; it’s like a string of canvases. There is literally more smoking than I can remember ever seeing in a film. It would be easier to count the moments where there isn’t smoking. It’s amazing. There is music, too. Touko plays the piano and loves jazz and swing records. But the music is heard mostly when it’s inside the story — when they are at a club, when he is playing, when he puts on a record. For much of the film, there’s no score. When it’s quiet in the scene, it’s quiet in the theatre. The sound of dialogue too is a bit hushed, in indoor voices, as though the entire world is whispering a secret. Scenes are draped in long pauses and atmospheric silences that highlight the fact of truth’s oppressively unspoken status. He was always alone when he was working. But this was because what he was doing was illegal, not because he was ashamed. He was angry. For a decade or more, except for his lover, no one in Helsinki knew anything about it. Snow, smoke, secret parties, graying temples.
Then he finally goes to Los Angeles, and discovers he is literally a rock star. This is where the leather romping, urgent disco tracks, and sexy naked men motifs kick in hard. Little did he realize the true extent to which his drawings, which had been widely published here under his alias, had spawned an entire universe of leather, short shorts, and intoxicating personal freedom the likes of which the artist had never known. By that time a little older, he embraced the sun-drenched liberty of America with gusto, eventually settling here and somewhat grudgingly accepting his status as gay pride’s pater familias. Throughout all this, the film retains its focus on Tom’s circle of immediate friends and confidantes, and on his own philosophical awakening’s slow, steady unfolding. I’m serious, they smoke the entire time, even in California. It’s amazing. He smokes more than he speaks, a man of few words always. But somehow, at the end of two ruminative, soulful, frequently hilarious and very moving hours, you still come away feeling as close to this man as though he had been a lifelong friend. You root for him, and are proud of him. And despite the film being about his life rather than about his art per se, it succeeds at a humanized art history in which the work’s context, personal inspiration, originality, and evolution are explained in a way that deepens the experience and understanding of both.
Opens in LA on October 20 (at the NuArt) with a national release to follow.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is LA Editor for Whitehot Magazine and a contributor to KCET’s Artbound, as well as HuffPost, Vice, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake,Artillery, Juxtapoz, ALTA Journal of California, Palm Springs Life, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes loads of essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange.