With awards season quickly heating up, more and more under-the-radar films are making their way to theaters. One such film is the biopic “Tom of Finland – the Finnish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film opens December 8, at Landmark Lagoon in Minneapolis.
Pekka Strang as Touko Laaksonen a.k.a. Tom of Finland. (Photo by Josef Persson, courtesy Kino Lorber.)
In “Tom of Finland,” Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) returns home from World War II a hero. Despite having respect and medals that speak to that, Touko is essentially a prisoner in his own country … as homosexuality was still illegal.
Struggling with the horrors he saw abroad, and without being able to be himself, Touko moves in with his narrow-minded, yet surprisingly affectionate, sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky).
Eventually, things start going reasonably well for Touko – he’s got a job at a local ad agency, he’s managed to stay off the radar of the authorities, and he’s rediscovered art … in the form of homoerotic sketches – largely of muscle-bound men in leather.
Things take an unexpected turn, however, when Kaija brings in an attractive younger boarder, dancer Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), who both brother and sister develop feelings for.
While all of this is taking place, Touko’s art – under the pseudonym “Tom of Finland” – starts resonating with audiences across the globe, causing an awakening and societal shift.
Lauri Tilkanen, Jessica Grabowsky, and Pekka Strang in a scene from “Tom of Finland.” (Photo by Josef Persson, courtesy Kino Lorber.)
Prior to reading the synopsis for this movie, I’d never heard of Touko Laaksonen, never seen any of his artwork, and had no idea either had made such a contribution to the gay community. Truth be told, I didn’t even realize it was a biopic right away – I just thought it sounded like an interesting story. And it absolutely was.
Touko, at least as he’s portrayed in the movie, was a really interesting character in that he wasn’t ashamed of who he was, but chose to fly low enough below the radar to avoid prosecution and/or persecution – hence the pseudonym. He was also a semi-reluctant icon in his community – he was proud of his work and what it meant to people, but he didn’t want to be the face of the fight for equality and was remorseful for some things that came about because of the awakening his work helped inspire.
It might sound a bit complicated, but when you see it play out on screen it makes much more sense. Director Dome Karukoski does an excellent job of giving a detailed account of multi-dimensional character in a time of personal/professional/societal tumult. Strang is also particularly strong in bringing this very strong, yet very damaged character to life.
★★★1/2 of ★★★★★