By Sophie Bennett, Staff Writer
Touko Laaksonen, born in 1920 in Kaarina, Finland, was an internationally acclaimed artist who would become a prominent symbol for gay culture. Touko’s incredible life of love, beauty and tragedy is compiled into a compelling biopic called “Tom of Finland,” helmed by filmmaker Dome Karukoski. Selected as Finland’s entry for the foreign language category of the Oscars, the film follows Touko, whose pen name was Tom of Finland, from his early days of fighting in the war to his career as a groundbreaking homoerotic artist in a homophobic time and culture.
After serving in the army during WWII Touko (Pekka Strang) moves in with his loving, but homophobic sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky); the two work at an advertising agency together. In secret, Touko works on his sketches and develops specific characters that later become icons for his work. Soon he meets Nipa (Lauri Tilkanen), a gay dancer who has the affections of both Kaija and Touko, causing tension. Eventually, Touko’s career takes off when he sends his work to the United States, which propels him on an incredible adventure.
“Tom of Finland” is a biopic that not only shows the life of one of Finland’s most famous artists, but also puts his accomplishments in the perspective of the persecution Touko had to endure in Finland. Touko’s characters are portrayed as constant figures in his life: his muscular motorcycle riding men not only broke boundaries for stereotypes of gay men, but were also symbols for young gay boys and men around the world.
Pekka Strang, who is known mostly for theater work, gives a standout performance as Touko. Originally the film was set to be an all-English language film, but because of Strang’s Finnish nationality, he was able to help the film acquire Finnish financing. The authenticity of the story pervaded since it was set mostly in Finland with Finnish actors a crucial part of the film. It provides a juxtaposition of Touko’s life in Finland with his life in Los Angeles, where his art was able to garner international acclaim and achieve mainstream status.
When it comes to biopics, many films often find themselves lost in the story. With people like Touko Laaksonen, there is such an incredible amount of rich and vibrant stories to tell that filmmakers are posed with the difficulty of choosing which ones to share. This often results in too much being crammed into one film. However, the filmmakers of “Tom of Finland” were able to successfully pick the substantial moments of Touko’s career and subsequently created a beautiful biopic. “Tom of Finland” is not only an entertaining watch, but also a film that maintains the same power and beauty of Touko Laaksonen’s own art.
“Tom of Finland” opened at the Quad Cinema at 34 W. 13th St. on Friday, Oct. 13.