Pekka Strang as Touko Laaksonen in Tom of Finland (Kino Lorber)

Ever wonder how leather became a thing in the gay community? It dates back to post-World War II and the underground drawings by a man known as Tom of Finland. Without his artwork there would be no Village People. Freddie Mercury, too, crafted his look after the artist’s gay caricatures.

A scene in Tom of Finland evokes the impact the artist’s work had on gay culture. Sometime in the 1970s, in a small-town gym, a young man, Doug (Seumas Sargent), eyes Jack (Jakob Oftebro) from across the locker room. To catch Jack’s attention, Doug puts on a black leather motorcycle jacket and opens the door to his locker to reveal a risqué drawing of men in leather. Jack then puts on his own leather jacket, opens the door to his locker to reveal a similar drawing. Both were works by Tom of Finland.

“Tom” was the pseudonym of Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang), who fought the Russians for the Finnish Army in World War II. During his time in the army (he acquired the rank of second lieutenant), he took part in the hush-hush homoerotic hookup culture within the army. However, once the war ends and Laaksonen goes back to Helsinki to draw for an advertising agency, he finds peacetime to be more oppressive than when he was at war. He lives with his sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), who knows that he is gay but believes he needs a wife to be happy.

Laaksonen, mourning for the good times he had during the war, begins to draw his experiences and his fantasies, often modeling his characters after men he encountered. Since these are his innermost fantasies, he takes some artistic liberties. His figures are overly muscled, with exaggerated phalluses protruding through their pants. While the drawings did feature nudity, his signature style was figures clothed in military and police uniforms, especially in black leather.

For a long time, Laaksonen’s drawings were for personal use only (he kept them in a hiding spot in his attic). This changes after he meets Veli (a gem of a performance by Lauri Tilkanen), a ballet dancer who becomes his life partner. At Veli’s urging, Laaksonen pursues distribution for his drawings at underground gay parties. With Veli’s encouragement, Laaksonen finally mails his work to the publisher of American bodybuilding magazines (which at the time were as close to gay porn as U.S. law would allow). His drawings become a hit in America and before long he and Veli are moderately wealthy.

Eventually his American fans (Doug and Jack, the two men who met in the locker room earlier) commission him to come to America and go on a tour of the gayest cities—Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco. When Laaksonen arrives in LA, the exaggerated welcome is like when Dorothy reaches Oz—the parties, the bars, and even the streets are populated by men in leather, who have fashioned themselves after his drawings, as though Laaksonen, through his alias, has created an entire world from afar.

While the story itself is inspiring, it does suffer some of the same pratfalls of many biopics. It focuses too much on the breadth of the subject’s life rather than giving us a sense of who he was, and Laaksonen is stoic to the point of woodenness. With the exception of Kaija and Veli (both of whom are sorely missing from the third act), all of the minor characters appear just long enough to perform their roles in Tom of Finland’s saga, but none of them get fleshed out into real characters. Given its subject matter, the movie is surprisingly staid—there really isn’t a lot of sex.

What Tom of Finland gets right is the paranoia of being gay during a more restrictive era, when those who were suspected of being homosexual were sought out and investigated ruthlessly. During the 1950s Helsinki- and Berlin-set scenes, the constant fear of being found out is felt, which gives the film a thriller aspect, drawing stark contrast to when Laaksonen finally arrives in 1970s America.

This is Finland’s submission for the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. While it probably won’t win that honor, it certainly is an accurate film in one regard, particularly in how it emphasizes that through Tom of Finland’s artwork, gay men found a way to identify each other. With that, a sense of pride and an entire subculture was built around his artwork. While Touko Laaksonen may not have been responsible for the gay rights movement, he certainly was responsible for the way some of it looked.

Directed by Dome Karukoski
Written by Aleksi Bardy
Released by Kino Lorber
English and Finnish with English subtitles
Finland/Sweden/Denmark/Germany. 116 min. Not rated
With Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilkanen, Seumas Sargent, Jakob Oftebro, and Jessica Grabowsky