For its first half, the biopic “Tom of Finland” proves an immersive, handsomely crafted look at how famed gay Finnish illustrator Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) came to create his fetishistic drawings of hyper-masculine, leather-clad men that would become a gay porn staple and eventually fill coffee table art books.
The film, Finland’s official Academy Award entry for 2018, deftly traces how Laaksonen’s time in the Finnish army in World War II, during which he had his share of illicit gay sexual encounters, clinched his fascination with hot, uniformed men of authority.
Postwar, Laaksonen lives with judgmental sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), with whom he also works at an ad agency; furtively draws what would become his trademark images; starts a long-term relationship with Kaija’s and his fetching new roommate, Veli (Lauri Tilkanen); and travels from repressive Finland to more tolerant Berlin to riskily purvey his stylized art. It’s a captivating look at a bygone era.
But later, when Laaksonen’s eye-popping work finds its way to America, the film becomes a more surface, time-lurching checklist of scenes as the artist, rechristened Tom of Finland, grows into a gay icon, whose peak years — the 1970s and ’80s — coincided with both the gay liberation movement and the AIDS epidemic.
Although the movie watchably re-creates this kaleidoscopic era (including visits to “anything goes” California), director Dome Karukoski and writer Aleksi Bardy never quite contextualize Laaksonen’s output within the vast world of gay porn.
In addition, why so many gay men are attracted to the strapping, wildly endowed Tom of Finland-type male image is one of several deeper psychosexual issues that go underexplored. It’s also surprising that, given the nervy homoeroticism of the Laaksonen oeuvre, the film itself lacks a certain heat.
Still, “Tom of Finland” entertainingly recounts an intriguing and vital chapter of 20th-century gay history with style and deference.
‘Tom of Finland’
In Finnish, English and German with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: Landmark Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles