Neil Armfield directs Holding the Man which tells the story of Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo’s 15 year romance through the 1970s and into the 1980s, when AIDS tore them apart. The film is based on a novel of the same name, penned by Connigrave (a writer, actor and activist) which was first published in 1995 shortly after his death.
Holding the Man remains one of the most important and well-known works of Australian LGBT fiction and it later became a successful play directed by Tommy Murphy, first shown in 2006. Murphy also wrote the script for the film, which was released in 2015.
The teenage flashbacks were the least successful part of this film for me. I struggled to get invested in the two characters who don’t get fully developed in the opening scenes. I wasn’t convinced of the initial chemistry between them and John doesn’t get the same kind of treatment in film he gets in Conigrave's memoirs. The film relies on his looks and soft smiles rather than developing his personality. In the absence of the love letter style of Conigrave’s memoirs which describe how Conigrave feels when he sees John, those wide-eyed looks leave John undeveloped. With the benefit of the text, the way Conigrave sees John in those early days is much more evocative: “I saw the body of a man with an open, gentle face: such softness within that masculinity. He was beautiful, calm. I was transfixed. He wasn't talking, just listening to his friends with his hands in his pockets, smiling. What was it about his face? He became aware that I was looking at him and greeted me with a lift of his eyebrows.”
The school era scenes aren’t assisted by the fact Corr and Stott are noticeably too old to convincingly pass as teenagers and their story also doesn’t feel entirely of its time. They seem to have few qualms about peers and classmates quickly identifying them as a couple and it’s difficult to believe we’re in an Australian Catholic school at a time when homosexuality remained illegal (this only changed in 1994) and the Australian Medical Association had only three years before (in 1973) agreed to drop homosexuality from its list of disorders and illnesses. On the other hand, by choosing not to focus on external pressures from society, the early part of the film can almost exclusively concentrate on Tim and John. It's this unapologetic romance which is one of the narrative strengths of Holding the Man. The warmth of the initial scenes capture the development of Conigrave and Caleo’s relationship with all the dizzying hallmarks of first love, as you would expect from any good teen romance. In some ways it’s refreshing not to see a film labour on issues which have been explored numerous times and it allows the story of Caleo and Conigrave to begin on a light-hearted note, which balances nicely against the later scenes.
After school, John and Tim go to university and find themselves struggling with life and love. The film is honest in portraying both the good and the bad in their relationship, including the period of separation when Tim goes to acting school in Sydney. Tim comes into his own during this period, although there's always the sense of never quite forgetting John which permeates through those scenes of freedom and hedonism. Corr plays Tim as loud and, at times, selfish, but manages to make him warm and sympathetic at the same time. The viewer can understand his desire to live as a single man for a while, having spent his entire youth with one person. The way the relationship progresses with John and Tim’s period apart feels very natural and Corr plays Tim with aplomb.
Tim’s involved in student activism, dramatic, full of energy and eager to experience new things. Even if Tim may not always be nice as such, the character is an honest and a real one. Again, John’s character is less developed as the story focuses on Tim’s acting classes and exploration of Sydney’s gay scene. As a result, the film doesn't quite succeed in capturing that eagerness to find one another again and it lacks exposition you get in the text. Nevertheless, the chemistry between Stott and Corr and the history between John and Tim is sufficient to give context to the eventual decision to live together again in Sydney.
When Tim and John find their way back to one another, the Australian gay community is grappling with the onset of AIDS. Tim interviews Richard for his play (we know his name only because it is written on a tape used to record the interview). The only time we see Richard is during that scene and then, later, portrayed on stage after his death. This is one of the Armfield and Corr do a wonderful job of capturing the fear and uncertainty of the time in those scenes where Tim interviews Richard, discovers he and John are HIV positive and watches his play performed with the knowledge of their diagnosis etched on his face.
Just as the film is unflinching about sex, it is also unflinching about death. Conigrave’s memoirs chart John’s demise in honest, raw, often brutal detail and in this regard the film doesn’t hold back. It is in these scenes at last that we really get to the heart of John. The viewer is treated to an incredibly moving portrayal by Stott where we see John’s resilience, his warmth, his love for Tim and his wry humour. So moved was I by the exploration of John’s demise that my earlier quibbles faded into the background. That’s the power of this film. The initial scenes show actors acting, with Tim being taught how to cry or express loss on stage. To some extent the film requires the viewer to suspend disbelief as we watch actors playing teenagers much younger than their years and there are several play-within-a-play moments. By the time John is seriously ill, the tears are real and as a viewer I felt Tim's raw pain keenly. It’s impossible not to be deeply moved by the scenes which depict John’s illness with unflinching honesty and the tenderness and depth of connection between Caleo and Conigrave at that point is palpable. Through John’s demise, Tim’s own symptoms get worse but he keeps his focus on John until the very end.
In terms of supporting cast, it’s Antony LaPaglia as John’s father who steals the show. One of the most painful scenes for me was watching him sit in the hospital and ask John to change his will to ensure he gets half of John’s possessions. With LaPaglia watching, Tim and John divide up the contents of their home with Tim making light of it for John’s benefit with comments like, “I can’t remember who bought the Vegemite”; “Laughing makes my lung hurt.”
At the film's conclusion, the viewer learns of Conigrave’s own death, ten days after finishing Holding the Man. Despite some flaws and somewhat undeveloped characters at the outset, by the time the film concluded I was fully invested in the story of Tim and John. A powerful, moving look at a time when two boys from different worlds collided, as freedom juxtaposed with loss in Australia’s gay community.