Holding the Man is an adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s 1995 memoir of the same name, having previously been adapted into a successful stageplay by the film’s screenwriter, Tommy Murphy. The story follows Tim and John from high school in Melbourne, where Tim is a drama student and John is captain of the football team and the unlikely pair fall in love. The film tracks them through university, through sexual exploration and through a joint AIDS diagnosis at the height of the epidemic in the 1980s. Conigrave’s story is very important one in the Australian gay canon and certainly one of the most beloved.
At its much anticipated world premiere taking place in Sydney, where much of the story is set, the feeling in the room was that something important was about to take place. Something that was going to contribute to something bigger than itself. Tim and John’s story is a story that resonates with so many and here, given the appropriate director in Neil Armfield (of Candy, 2006), and the necessary budget, it is thankfully given the chance to be told in film, and told right (unlike so much of queer cinema). This is a good film. Perhaps even a great one. The roaring ’80s soundtrack gives an extra oomph to what is resolutely a period piece. With the boys growing up in Melbourne, the Essendon colours are front and centre. From a filmic perspective, Armfield doesn’t necessarily break much new ground, but that’s irrelevant considering the film’s narrative aims – it tells a true story and it tells it very well.
The performances of the two leads are revelatory. Ryan Corr is particularly good, playing Tim as bright, manic and suitably camp. Craig Stott as John, though, is devastating. His performance is built upon the almost childlike kindness Conigrave sets up so carefully in the book (and he has appropriately lovely eyelashes, also a plus). Anthony Lapaglia’s performance as John’s unaccepting father and his subtle, shaking tears is likewise a stand out, as is a wonderful cameo by Geoffrey Rush, who appeared in another of the big Australian films at the festival, Simon Stone’s The Daughter.
In the transition from page to screen, the chronology of the film has been altered, stepping away from the more linear source material. The AIDS diagnosis comes much earlier in the film than it does in the book, and is an unique approach to this kind of story. We learn the men are positive, and then watch how it happened, an interesting move by Armfield that works to augment an obvious narrative. At times, though, this approach incidentally acts to slightly confuse the audience by making it difficult to place the men in time. Overall, though, the film movingly chronicles a piece of the history of the AIDS crisis in Australia, and more than that, the life of two real people whose story has an important place in Australian gay history.
The film is embedded in a time in which HIV/AIDS is no longer at the forefront of gay activism, marriage equality is the current focus. Holding the Man knows the story it tells is an important contribution to the conversation surrounding gay marriage. When Tim is referred to as a “friend” at John’s funeral, his response, that “we’ve been together for 15 years, he’s my husband” reverberates around the room, both on screen and in the cinema. That noted this film is, not necessarily most importantly, but certainly unavoidably, an AIDS film. A subset of the queer cinema genre, from Bill Sherwood’s 1986 Parting Glances, to Tony Kushner’s 2003 epic, Angels in America, films dealing with HIV/AIDS have an important place in the representation of gay male desire. Holding the Man is another addition to this broader AIDS narrative, but Tim and John are adamant in their politicization of their condition, repeating to those around them that they are unashamed of who they are.
I am apprehensive to go along with any discourse that surrounds gay cinema that purports that gay love stories are just like any other love story, that they are universal. Gay or straight, there is no way to watch this film without being drawn in by the fairytale nature of two first loves staying together until their death or the deep tragedy of losing a partner too young. But understanding films like this as being queer cinema above all else, as taking up an important part in our cultural and critical gay imaginary, is vital – and I believe that’s what Conigrave would have wanted.
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