Twenty years after its initial release, Tim Conigrave’s award-winning 1995 memoir Holding The Man has made its way to the big screen – and finds not much has changed.
As far as movies with a gay storyline go, it’s easy to rattle off the big hits. Brokeback Mountain is one. Jim Carrey’s I Love You Phillip Morris is another. Festival faves Reaching for the Moon and Tom Ford’s A Single Man come to mind as much for the fabulous mid-century settings as the storylines. Didn’t catch Matt Damon in Behind The Candelabra. Thought The Imitation Game was expertly crafted. Still sing my heart out to Rent. Loved Dallas Buyers Club. Haven’t seen Pride or Milk yet. Philadelphia and The Birdcage remain two of my all-time favourite movies.
But the last time I remember watching a quality Australian film about homosexuality? Probably 1998’s confronting drama Head On which came hot on the heels of Priscilla and The Sum Of Us, making for a brilliant hat trick of gay ’90s Aussie flicks. And then…. nada*. Teen surf drama Newcastle failed to make much of an impact in 2008. Probably the highest profile gay storyline at the local box office in the past decade has been 2004’s Strange Bedfellows – which wasn’t really a gay movie, just a movie about Michael Caton and Paul Hogan pretending to be gay.
Why it’s taken us so long between drinks at the local box office, I’m not sure. But it goes some way to explaining why Holding The Man has made such an impact on people – first as a book in 1995, then as a stageplay from 2006, and now on the big screen in 2015 – because there really isn’t anything quite like this love story.(It’s a tragedy, yes, but a love story at heart.)
In Holding The Man, revered theatre director and part-time filmmaker Neil Armfield (Candy, Twelfth Night) delivers us a front row seat into the private lives of two young men in the 1970s. Timothy Conigrave (Ryan Corr) and John Caleo (Craig Stott) first meet as classmates at their Melbourne private Catholic boys school: one is a star of the stage, the other a star of the football field.
Their story starts out like so many other teenagers around them. Someone has a crush. Someone has to make that first phone call to the other’s house. Someone reaches for the other’s hand. Everyone’s hormones are raging.
There is wonderful humour sprinkled throughout these moments, perhaps to create a common ground for viewers no matter where your sexual preference lies. Who doesn’t remember life pre-mobile phones, when asking someone out at high school involved ringing the dreaded family landline and speaking with parents first? Or the furtive passing of notes in class (which undoubtedly has been replaced with Snapchat by now) and sleepovers with friends?
All of these nostalgic nuances embed the story in relatable territory and right from the start, it all feels so real. Even when the humour stops and the real tragedy begins – the boys were born into a pre-AIDS world with maximum sexual experimentation and minimum risk awareness – there is a wonderful light woven throughout their journey. Even once Tim is accepted into Sydney drama school, leaving Melbourne (and John) behind, the audience never doubts the two will eventually reunite. To watch them by each other’s sides facing everything from parental opposition to infidelity to societal pressures is so heartwarming. When John eventually loses his battle with AIDS it is simply devastating.
Not having read Tim Conigrave’s award-winning autobiography or having seen its adapted stage play (which also earned a run in London’s prestigious West End), I’m not entirely sure how the couple’s lovemaking scenes were acted out elsewhere… they actually caught me a little off-guard with their intensity! (If I’m being really honest they were very, er, enlightening too.) Still, I respect their presence here because without them, this would have been a much less convincing movie; a much less powerful love story. It’s testament to the incredible performances by Ryan Corr and Craig Stott that their chemistry as a couple is elethroughout.
Backing them up is a powerhouse supporting cast, starting with the magnificent Anthony LaPaglia. One reviewer wrote that LaPaglia’s silent stoic portrayal as the father of one of the boys was so good it threatened to “throw the film off-balance” and I tend to agree with him. Guy Pearce plays the other, softer father, and even though it’s a smaller part, naturally, being Guy Pearce, he’s still incredible. Rising Australian talent Sarah Snook brings a nice complexity to her role as Tim’s friend Pepe – she really should have been utilised more – while Geoffrey Rush’s cameo as one of Tim’s teachers at NIDA adds an exciting jolt to the film’s darker detour.
I did feel that, because the first half of the film was so high and punchy and funny, that by the time we reach Tim’s NIDA days and John’s post-diagnosis treatments, the second half loses momentum slightly. This is compounded by the fact the story is told over various decades but not always in chronological order. It makes for a more creative kind of filmmaking, sure, but I can’t help but feel that by messing with the story’s natural arc, the build-up has been diluted slightly. (Similarly, I found the overseas scenes bookending Holding The Man to be slightly disorienting; it was difficult to determine the era right away.) Thankfully the film does manage to stay on track for the tearjerker climax – John’s final days – where small jokes pepper extremely difficult moments, providing some much-needed relief from the gripping hospital scenes (that are so real you just about choke from claustrophobia).
I’m sure every country has their own issues trying to bring gay stories to the screen. But when you are talking about a country with as many macho rugby-loving blokes as Australia, a country that still doesn’t allow gay marriage in 2015, it seems downright astonishing this love affair between a high school football star and drama student was ever allowed to get out to begin with.
I’m really glad it did. As sad as it gets (and trust me, it’s up there) it’s a lovely celebration too.
HOLDING THE MAN is in cinemas now.