Screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and introduced to the capacity crowd by director Dome Karukoski, the story of Touko Laaksonen is one of contradictions, an artist whose work is instantly recognisable the world over yet who lived in relative obscurity in his home country where many in his own extended family did not know until after his death that Laaksonen was the notorious Tom of Finland, creator of iconic works of erotic art of hyper-masculinity which inspired a global following.
A life lived with two faces, a duality worthy of a spy thriller, it was an obligation forced upon Laaksonen rather than a choice; a conscript in the Finnish army serving as an anti-aircraft officer it was not possible for him to live openly either under the eyes of the supervision of the German Wehrmacht or the domestic police forces who shared equally intolerant views which continued long past the war years in both nations.
The city blacked out in wartime as the clouds above are swept by searchlights, in the darkness beneath the trees of the park there is brief companionship and comfort from other similarly ostracised men: Touko knows the look, he’s given it himself, the thrill of opportunity tinged with the possibility the signal of interest was misread or the situation might change, yet the greatest danger is the brutality of police patrols rather than enemy bombers.
A successful artist for a marketing company in civilian life, he lives with his sister Kaija (Midnight Sun‘s Jessica Grabowsky) to whom he has confessed but who regards him as confused, the war pushing men together in an unnatural way, until a business trip to Berlin opens his eyes, to the nightclubs frequented solely by the select men who know the passwords to obtain entry, to betrayal and brief incarceration and the peril of the private sketches he carried with him.
Emboldened but unable to publish in his native Finland, he looked further afield to America where in 1957 his work made the cover of Physique Pictorial, primal images of exaggerated masculine perfection which established the softly spoken, almost timid Touko Laaksonen’s alter-ego Tom of Finland as in inspiration for a generation of disenfranchised men who sought like-minded company who rode motorbikes rather then embroidered dresses.
Among them is Doug (The Philosopher King‘s Seumas F Sargent) who as a teenager had stolen issues of Physique Pictorial from his employer, shame preventing them from buying them openly, reading them by torchlight under the covers while listening for the movement of his parents in the hallway beyond his bedroom door, who later joined a gym and bought a leather jacket, who dared to approach a man who in another time he would have considered beyond his reach.
The moment when Jack (The Last King‘s Jakob Oftebro) pulls his own leather jacket from his locker and smiles back at Doug is when the film escapes from the twilight repression of Scandinavia to the liberating sunshine of California, a different world of experiences and possibilities, a permission to be joyous and lustful expressed through the pairing of Sargent and Oftebro who are warm and immediately believable even if Doug cannot quite believe it himself at first.
Karukoski’s greatest asset is his cast and it is to Pekka Strang and Lauri Tilkanen the film belongs as Touko and Nipa, the dancer whom his sister takes in as a lodger not realising he is already acquainted with her brother; the film spanning over five decades of Laaksonen’s life, he and Nipa were together for twenty eight years of it, their love overcoming their few arguments which express the wider context of the film.
Written by Aleksi Bardy as an illumination of the times rather a canonical biography, when Touko chides Nipa’s choices saying “yellow curtains are for sissies,” it is not the colour he objects to so much as the implication that they should be hiding behind them, and similarly while the context of the opening conversation does not become heartbreakingly and hilariously clear until the closing act it is still apparent from the outset that it was not just an escaped rabbit that Touko and Doug were speaking of when it was said that he was too hungry and horny to stay in the closet.
Considered a war hero for killing a Russian paratrooper, an unnamed young man whose curtailed life is never far from his memory, Touko found himself at war again in the eighties during the AIDS epidemic when the reaction of the American right wing, as ever, was to blame the victims and do nothing, struggling against censorship even while trying to retain artistic control of his work. Uplifting and offering affirmation even through the pain and tears, over twenty five years after the death of Touko Laaksonen the defiant Tom of Finland continues to challenge stereotypes with humour and a strong heart which only wants to love and be loved.