Holding the Man (2015)

A love story for everyone

‘Will you marry me?’ a starry-eyed Timothy Conigrave asked his boyfriend John Caleo back in the ‘70s, yearning to be united with his one true love, a scene that will certainly resonate loudly with much of today’s contemporary audience. When the AIDS blow hit Australian shores back in the 1980s, it struck with an alarming sense of ferocity, chiefly for people with a male-on-male sexual preference, and, in its devastating wake, many lost their lives to the sweeping epidemic. However, out of the desolating ashes emerged an extraordinary memoir, Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man, a touching and inspiring testament to Tim’s 15-year relationship with lover John Caleo, documenting the AIDS crisis in Sydney along with the men’s trials and struggles as a homosexual couple living in Australia at the height of the sexual revolution. Since 1995, Holding the Man has become one of the most significant and celebrated books published in the country, moving generations from all walks of life, regardless of gender, sexuality or nationality. Furthermore, Holding the Man went on to be adapted by playwright Tommy Murphy into an award-winning stage production, and, with same-sex marriage recently legalized in the United States, nationwide — from June 26th, 2015 — timing couldn’t be any better for this big screen arrival. In the capable hands of Australian theater doyen and acclaimed filmmaker Neil Armfield — directing his first feature since 2006’s Candy, starring Abbie Cornish and the late Heath Ledger — with Murphy reconfiguring the material into a screenplay for flick, Holding the Man stands as an oddly beautiful motion picture, wonderfully funny yet incredibly heartbreaking, and a powerful testament to the immense bravery and enduring spirit of two star-crossed lovers.

Brokeback Beach?
Brokeback Beach?

Bookended by scenes of a picturesque Italian coast, which initially feel out of place but make more sense as the plot unfolds, Holding the Man tells the remarkable true story of Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo, detailing their unshakable bond. From their humble beginnings as young lads attending Melbourne’s prestigious Xavier College, Holding the Man more or less opens in 1976, where forbidden romance is sparked between aspiring actor Tim Conigrave (Ryan Corr), who’s performing in a school production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet — coincidence or dare I say synchronicity, an instance of life intimating art — and John Caleo (Craig Stott), a star of the college AFL (Australian Football League) team. When Tim falls hard for John, the feelings are mutual — and thankfully reciprocated — with the boy’s attraction being almost instantaneous. Within their courtship days, there’s dreamy flirtatious behavior aplenty, as the pair partake in encounters that are all too familiar within comparable blossoming love stories; from a cheeky after-school kiss, late-night sneak-outs simply to catch a glimpse of one another — often through a patchy fly screen — to a raunchy love letter that’s seized by a classroom teacher, there’s certainly no shortage of romanticized adolescent passion. However, when John’s father, Bob (Anthony LaPaglia) — whose exemplifies a tough-love parental approach — discovers that the teen’s friendship is more than just platonic, the ill-fated lovers set off on an uphill trudge that will dominate and shape the remainder of their lives together. From their uncomfortable ‘coming out,’ to their experimental university days filled with infidelity, all the way to the adulthood hardships that befall our love-birds, particularly as the gay community fall mercy to the AIDS disease that threatens to claim the lives of many, audiences follow Tim and John through it all; the uplifting highs, the tear-jerking lows and everything in-between.

Being a rather difficult property to translate from stage to screen, Tommy Murphy’s recalibration is rather masterful, and effortlessly manages to run the gaunt of emotions, capturing the grandness, sincerity and enduring nature of Conigrave’s material, being both faithful to the theater production while standing to be an authentic account of Conigrave’s compelling publication; though, with the film’s 128 minute duration, it could stand to be a little too long for fidgety patrons. Likewise, director Neil Armfield has done an equally wonderful job in piecing together such a gorgeous film, balancing the narrative’s tone — periods of absolute bliss with those of sorrow and turmoil — as the moments of lightness, early on in the flick, pave the way for the burdensome darkness that ensues in its later portions, with Holding the Man coming across as far more profound and appealing than Armfield’s previous work Candy, a movie about two junkies living in Sydney. From the smutty discotheques, steamy bathhouses and sooty bars in the risqué ‘70s — an era recognized for its sexual freedom — to the late ‘80s and early 1990s, where homophobia skyrocketed and the ‘gay man’s curse’ shook the flamboyant scene to its very core, the flick’s time shifts are well handled and work excellently. However, Holding the Man’s linear structure is sometimes interrupted, as the film flashes back and forth in time, but Armfield — with the aid of editor Dany Cooper, The Sapphires (2012) — carefully guides audiences through these jumps, ensuring that we are drawn to the on-screen proceedings at each and every interval, watching and rooting for the withstanding couple as they overcome unimaginable odds — discrimination, sickness and temptation, particularly from the boy’s disapproving religious parents. Interestingly, this new medium has presented filmmakers with an exciting opportunity, enabling Armfield and his team of professionals to focus on elements of Conigrave’s book that, in the past, have been tricky to depict live, on a theatrical platform, in turn giving this adaptation the edge it needs to exceed its onstage equivalent. Alas, in parts, the flick does come across as rather ‘one-sided,’ essentially told from Tim’s point of view, playing out more like an unspoken eulogy to John, written by Tim, who wasn’t given an opportunity to speak at his ‘husband’s’ funeral.

Love in an Elevator
Love in an Elevator

With an honest approach to sex, Holding the Man may be a tad too explicit for some, particularly the conservative type, as the homoerotic sex scenes are realistic, energized and quite raw, though they’re often tainted with a hint of bitter-sweet sadness. With the aid of Germain McMicking’s, The Turning (2013), breathtaking cinematography, along with Alice Babidge’s, The Snowtown Murders (2011), period appropriate costumes and Josephine Ford’s, Cut Snake (2014), detailed production design, the thirty-year time-frame is brought to life in an accurate fashion, with these elements never coming across as overly nostalgic, nor drawing attention away from the underlining drama. Elsewhere, the film’s soundtrack — including homegrown hits such The Masters Apprentices’ ‘Because I Love You’ and British boyband Bronski Beat’s synthpop classic, ‘I Feel Love’ — is deployed with astute dramatic effectiveness, strengthening an already hefty storyline.

Besides looking a little too ‘mature’ to play teenagers, leads Corr and Stott both deliver powerhouse performances and do make a ‘cute’ on-screen couple, with their commanding yet tender believable chemistry standing to be the emotional crux of the film; it’s what audiences are sure to vividly recall once the picture is over. Ryan Corr, Wolf Creek 2 (2013), portrays Tim Conigrave in such a revealing way — meticulously charting both his charm and ugliness — and fully embodies the man’s brash self-centered allure while letting his strong willed determination and compassion for his partner shine through, carefully balancing Conigrave’s multitude of qualities and emotions. Likewise, Melbourne born Craig Stott, Ghost Team One (2013), playing John Caleo, is a nice contrast to Corr’s Tim; John is much more subtle and gentle than his boyfriend, but no less multifaceted. From Caleo’s masculine persona as captain of the school football team, to his delicate, honest and unforgiving ability to ‘love so beautifully,’ Stott’s rendering almost breaks your heart, particularly as John is overtaken by the AIDS virus that eventually claims his life. On a side note, anyone who’s ever sat beside a loved one at a deathbed will find several of the feature’s hospital scenes rather confronting, though these moments are still played out in such a graceful manner, insomuch that I’ve never seen the act of watching someone pass so truthfully depicted before in film.

A fantastic Aussie support cast rounds out Holding the Man. Delivering a particularly impressive performance, Anthony LaPaglia, Lantana (2001), adds overwrought emotive depth to Bob Caleo, John’s often impetuous and condemning father, a character who’s apparently much harsher in the book, whilst Guy Pearce’s, Memento (2000), presence, in a small role as Tim’s dad, brings a weighty gravitas to events. Also worthy of note, Kerry Fox, Shallow Grave (1994), is terrific as Tim’s mother Mary Gret Conigrave, whose resilience and vitality help hold Tim together as tragedy draws near, with AIDS looming over his life and that of his lover when both are diagnosed HIV-positive. Also, be sure to look out for a fun little cameo by Geoffrey Rush, Shakespeare in Love (1998), as Tim’s acting professor — when Timothy attends NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art), relocating to Sydney for study — who chides Conigrave for his overly effeminate acting, claiming that his work lacks in masculinity.

Waiting for the rainbow ...
Waiting for the rainbow …

Director Armfield’s flimsy grasp of symbolism aside, as John’s skill and fondness for Aussie Rules football is breezed over rather speedily — the flick’s title, Holding the Man, actually stands as a metaphor, an AFL term which refers to tackling an opponent who isn’t carrying the ball — this bold and uncompromising vision is a tremendous achievement, a credit to its talented team of artists, both in front of and behind the lens, as Holding the Man is project that’s intrinsically Australian, fraught with universal appeal, and will no doubt hold a place in the canon of queer cinema for generations to come. A deeply intimate film, thwart with a landscape of sentimentality, this epic love story transcends its same-sex subject matter, as Holding the Man may just well be the best and most influential Australian film since Geoffrey Wright’s highly controversial Romper Stomper (1992) — a movie that highlighted racial discrimination between Neo-Nazi skinheads and young Vietnamese people living in Melbourne during in the early ‘90s — reminding us that sometimes the most important pictures are those that focus on up-to-date topical issues. When all is said and done, don’t walk into Holding the Man without a box of tissues handy, because rest assured, as the fitting lyrics, ‘we made a vow, not to leave one another never,’ of Bryan Ferry’s upbeat ‘Let’s Stick Together’ plays over a mélange of real-life photographs, celebrating the lives of Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo during the film’s closing credit sequence — a nice finishing touch, seeing as the record was the first Christmas present John purchased for Tim — there won’t be a dry eye left in the house.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

Holding the Man is released through Transmission Films Australia