In 1970s Melbourne Timothy Conigrave (Ryan Corr) sees John Caleo (Craig Stott) playing a game of football on the school oval. Tim’s attraction is immediately evident and he pursues John to the point where a mutual attraction develops. Their relationship is kept secret but is inevitably discovered. Parents, friends and the Catholic school they attend are unsurprisingly displeased. This does not stop the relationship, rather adding fuel to its fire, and propels the story along for another 15 years through sickness and good health, in bad times and in good.
Outside of the football field, in one of the opening scenes of the film, Tim is rehearsing in a high school production of Romeo and Juliet. The parallels between the Shakespearian tragedy and Holding the Man are not to be ignored.
Adapted from Timothy Conigrave’s 1994 memoir, Holding the Man, director Neil Armfield and screenwriter Tommy Murphy retain the biggest strength of the source material: an intimate focus on the relationship of Tim and John. Neither the text, nor stage productions, nor the film aim to document history and provide a definitive representation of 1970s/1980s gay Australian culture. They do not define the experience of growing up gay or portray the fear and panic of developing AIDS. All of these experiences do, of course, feature but are secondary to the primary focus of the love story between two people.
Refreshingly, this take is a welcome treat from some of the whitewashed, sanitised depictions of gay culture and the rise of AIDS that we’re often served (I’m looking at you Dallas Buyers Club with your aggressively heterosexual and rather homophobic protagonist).
Authentic respect and care for the two protagonists is so strongly evident throughout the film by Armfield, Murphy and the rest of the cast and crew. Restraint exists within the sex scenes where passion plays out more strongly through close-ups of skin and minimal movement instead of mid-shot tirades of exaggerated thrusting. The result once again highlights the intimate feel of the story and the effectual mood of the film.
Earthy colours wrap around the characters and scenery creating a warm atmosphere, enabling the love story to flourish. Antagonising this, scenes shot in the hospitals are beige, sterilised and cold, starkly impacting upon our visual comfort while the men endure moment after moment of physical and physiological pain.
As much as the film is about the love story between two men, the film belongs to Ryan Corr. Having now appeared in a range of roles, Corr showcases his many talents and commands the screen as Timothy Conigrave in the performance of his career. Not to be outshone, Craig Stott displays a graceful tenderness, complementing Corr’s liveliness with effectual dignity.
When the supporting players are the likes of Anthony LaPaglia, Sarah Snook, Kerry Fox and Guy Pearce, it’s hard for a dull moment to be found. Enjoyably, there are a few moments when stars of stage and screen pop up in small scenes (most notably Geoffrey Rush as an intense drama teacher, Kerry Walker as a old lady in an elevator, or the hilarious Julie Forsythe as Tim’s aunty at a family wedding).
Neil Armfield, a director more known for his theatre work, creates the perfect mood for Holding the Man. Armfield invites us into the most private and intimate of moments between humans and we feel every moment of joy and every sting. In the mark of a truly perceptive director, the film includes some much-needed humour that complements the darkness with just the right amount of intensity. Nine years after directing Candy with Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish, Armfield makes a triumphant return to the screen and leaves us not wanting to wait another nine years for his next project.
For any viewer who is familiar with either Timothy Conigrove’s memoir, or the stage production to which the novel was also adapted from, all the film had to do was be faithful to the source material. Thankfully, the film version went far beyond any preconceived expectations. Holding the Man is a tender and absorbing Australian film that comes at time when the need for local stories to captivate audiences is strikingly important.
Holding the Man is in Australian cinemas from August 27 through Transmission Films.