Finnish director Dome Karukoski presents a well-executed biopic that celebrates an iconic queer artist who initiated a movement that redefined gay sex in art.
I was provided a screener of Tom of Finland for review. The opinions are my own.
If you know about queer history, you might have heard about Tom of Finland, the name that brought a lot of global fame to artist Touko Laaksonen. Touko’s work is instantly recognizable and this biopic shows a lot of it as well as his inspiration behind the art.
Tom of Finland takes the audience on a journey that chronicles Laaksonen’s life till his death in 1991. Touko (Pekka Strang) grew up in rural Finland and you can tell that he always knew he was gay. He served in the military during World War II. Now, I don’t know how much of it is cemented in the truth, but the film implied that a lethal confrontation with a Russian paratrooper is what played a role in the ‘male beauty’ that Touko idealized in his drawings.
After surviving a war, Touko started working as an illustrator alongside his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky) for an advertising agency. While he tries to be happy with his job he begins sketching sexualized images of male soldiers, lumberjacks, bikers, and more.
With homosexuality being a crime, Touko draws in secret and also hooks up with other gay men in Helsinki parks and queer bars. One of his nightly encounters introduces him to Veli (Lauri Tilkanen) in 1953, a dancer who ends up being Touko’s lover but not before creating some drama between Touko and his sister who’s also attracted to Veli.
As time passes, Touko’s art starts gaining popularity around the globe, leading to a lot of commercial success during the 1970s and 1980s. Being hailed as a gay icon and being urged by a fan is what encourages Touko to visit California and see a more queer-accepting place. However, the AIDS crisis occurs and it leads to Touko feeling guilty about the role he played in promoting the hypermasculine gay subculture through his art.
The approximate 115 minutes runtime offers Tom of Finland a lot of space to explore the different events in Touko’s life. Pekka Strang offers an impressive performance as the lead. You can see all of the emotional turmoil he goes through as a closeted gay man who likes drawing his fantasies. Strang also changes his performance as he goes from a closeted 20-year-old to an open and proud 70-year-old.
While Touko’s work is political, there isn’t a lot of political talk in the film. Tom of Finland seems to be more interested in spending time with the main characters and the personal drama they had to go through. While I liked how Touko and Veli finally decided to accept their feelings for each other, the scenes that had Kaija in there because Veli wanted to be seen as straight could’ve been shorter.
Having said that, Tom of Finland is a well-executed biopic that shines a well-deserved spotlight on one of the important LGBTQIA+ icons. It is surely worth a watch and that’s why I’m not surprised that it was selected as the Finnish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards.
Tom of Finland will open on October 13, 2017, in New York (The Quad) and on October 20, 2017, in Los Angeles (Nuart Theater) as well as San Francisco (Embarcadero). A national release will follow.
Have you had a chance to watch Tom of Finland? Feel free to share your thoughts with us.
Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.
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