It’s not often that we get a biopic about a man who drew dirty pictures, and it’s not often that a life story parallels a cultural movement in both tangential and critical ways. “Tom of Finland” is therefore already worthy of note, but it’s a sweetly provocative story on its own terms — a curtain partly parted to reveal a secret history.
Secret to many of us, anyway. Tom of Finland was the nom du smut of Touko Laaksonen (1920 -1991), a Finnish WWII veteran and illustrator whose undercover fetish art — of surreally brawny men engaging in graphic sexual acts — became an unexpected but influential tributary in the gay liberation era of the 1970s. You can draw a straight line (as it were) from Laaksonen’s signature character, a swaggering biker/cop figure dressed in gleaming black leather, to New York’s West Village demimonde and such developments as the Village People.
The irony was that while Tom of Finland’s art was taking off in America, the artist was living in a deeply closeted Scandinavia and knew nothing of his fame until late in life. The movie, directed by Dome Karukoski and scripted by a platoon of writers, is a wry life journey attuned to its hero’s wit, quiet defiance, and unexpected trajectory. It opens during WWII, when Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) has a discreet encounter with an officer (Taisto Oksanen) and is traumatized by his killing of an enemy soldier, but quickly settles into post-war Finland, where homosexuality is a crime punishable by imprisonment.
Lanky and sardonic, the hero finds success as an ad agency graphic designer, keeping his homoerotic art secret from his sister (Jessica Grabowsky) and the rest of society. The movie skillfully dramatizes the subterranean existence of gay life in postwar Europe: The risks, the raids, the exaltations, the very real dangers. That army officer reappears on the scene, as does a life partner (Lauri Tilkanen), and slowly Touko’s art makes its way into a wider yet still clandestine world.
“Tom of Finland” takes a mildly shocked and delighted left turn when America comes calling, first in the form of various LA porn merchants and then, in the 1970s, a number one fan named Doug (Seumas F. Sargent), who brings Touko to the West Coast for a gallery tour. These scenes are frank and bawdily funny, portraying the artist’s dry astonishment at the sybaritic paradise he has helped inspire. “These are your men,” Doug tells him, while also acknowledging how a generation of bullied and beaten gay men found beauty and pride in his art.
“Tom of Finland” has a lot of ground to cover, and when a key character lets out with a cough, you know it’s time for the Plague Years. Karukoski hustles us quickly through the final acts, with some unconvincing old-age make-up on the leads but also several quietly touching moments. In a subtle but wily performance, Strang never loses sight of his character’s innate sense of resistance. By drawing his way out of the closet, Tom of Finland drew a door for others to come out as well.
TOM OF FINLAND
Directed by Dome Karukoski. Written by Karukoski and Aleksi Bardy. Starring Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilkanen, Jessica Grabowsky. At Kendall Square. 115 minutes. Unrated (as NC-17, strong sexual content). In Finnish and English, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.