“Tom of Finland” opens on a great expanse of a room, as two men sit on a bench, discussing a rabbit. We don’t know who they (or the rabbit) are, or what they are waiting for. Just as you begin to wonder whether you’re watching a bunny-based “Waiting for Godot,” we are transported to Finland, on the front lines of World War II.
One of the men, as we learn, is Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang), a wide-eyed, high-cheekboned Finnish officer who doesn’t quite fit in. “Tom of Finland” is the dramatization of his real-life story. Laaksonen, who died in 1991, is known for sexually charged drawings of leather-clad, impossibly handsome men with impossibly high buttocks—images reproduced in comics and magazines that became beloved throughout the gay communities of the world. (Not, however, in Laaksonen’s home country, where public sentiment regarding gays was, at the time, as cold as the weather.)
“Tom of Finland,” which takes its name from the artist’s nom de porn, tracks Laaksonen’s life from the 1940s through the 1980s, by which time his pictures had became icons of gay culture. The entire story rests on the sloping shoulders of Strang, who captures the emotional reticence of a man who can find sexual release and emotional comfort only in dark parks, at poker games where not a lot of gambling goes on, and sometimes in underground—literally—bars.
Strang is at his best in these scenes, in which men make connections with each other via coded language and loaded glances, knowing that if they look too long at the wrong guy it could end in violence. Celebrated Finnish director Dome Karukoski and cinematographer Lasse Frank use the interplay of light and shadow—some scenes are lighted as if by Caravaggio—to underscore how Laaksonen and his few friends must remain hidden for their own safety (not just physical, but financial and familial). Even in their sanctuaries, the looming threat of discovery is real.
Later, when Laaksonen’s art becomes a sensation, particularly in the United States, the film accentuates the stark difference between relatively freewheeling Los Angeles and repressive Helsinki by contrasting the blue California sky with the claustrophobic gray atmosphere of Scandinavia. Yet even when Laaksonen travels to L.A., where he finds a freedom he’s never known and a hearty welcome—it turns out that the first scene takes place just before Laaksonen is greeted by a cheering crowd of fans—Strang plays him as someone who’s almost crippled by a life lived in fear. It’s a moving performance, rendering a character who, even when the sun is out, can’t quite bring himself to emerge from the shadows.
In the end, the overarching theme of “Tom of Finland” is the power of art, even—or maybe especially—so-called deviant art. Laaksonen’s drawings are something more than salacious, the film suggests, signaling to generations of teenage boys who looked at them with flashlights under bedcovers that they weren’t the only ones who felt what they felt, and wanted what they wanted. In the end, it’s not a story about naughty pictures at all, but about how one artist’s loneliness helped create a global community.