When the AIDS crisis hit Australia in the 1980s, it struck with alarming ferocity at the gay community. In its wake, many lives were lost, and homophobia in Australia skyrocketed. Yet out of the ashes emerged an extraordinary memoir by Tim Conigrave, a document of the AIDS crisis in Sydney and a testament to Tim’s 15-year relationship with John Caleo. Since 1995, ‘Holding the Man’ has become one of the most important books published in this country, inspiring and moving whole generations regardless of sexuality, gender or nationality. It’s impossibly beautiful, wondrously funny and incredibly devastating. Now, following on from its highly successful stage adaptation, Tim and John’s story has finally made it to film in the hands of acclaimed theatre director Neil Armfield and screenwriter Tommy Murphy.
When they meet in high school in 1976, Tim (Ryan Corr) is an aspiring student actor and John (Craig Stott) is the captain of the school football team. Tim falls hard for John, but to his surprise his feelings are reciprocated, and the two boys begin a relationship that will dominate the rest of their lives. We follow Tim and John through their coming out, university, infidelity and into adulthood. However, when AIDS begins to wipe out the gay community, both Tim and John find themselves at its mercy as it threatens to claim both of them.
Adapting ‘Holding the Man’ to the screen was always going to be an intimidating task, not only because of the density of the material but because of the enormous responsibility to get it right. Thankfully, Armfield and his remarkable team have not only lived up to expectations but exceeded them. This is an incredibly beautiful film, both in its story and its execution. Tommy Murphy’s screenplay is a magnificent adaptation, carefully choosing what it needs from the book, expanding on moments when necessary and leaving out detail that Armfield’s visual storytelling can fill in. Structurally, it’s tremendously exciting and full of surprises and in many ways exceeds Murphy’s stage adaptation, with the new medium allowing him to settle on moments that he never could on stage. Germain McMicking’s cinematography is breathtaking, Dany Cooper’s editing is delicate yet radically energised, and Josephine Ford and Alice Babidge’s production and costume design manage to bring the various time periods to life in a manner that seems immediate and never nostalgic.
At the head though is Armfield’s marvellous direction, both reverent and irreverent. ‘Holding the Man’ might end on a devastating note, but the first two thirds are still funny, sexy and highly energetic, and Armfield directs the film with an unexpected but totally welcome bombast, revelling in the moments of lightness in order to give the moments of darkness the weight they need. Perhaps the most exhilarating thing about ‘Holding the Man’ is that, as well as a great adaptation, it’s also just a great film, one of the best this country has produced so far this century. There are occasional moments that fall flat, but they’re few and far between; when the film hits its mark, it does so square between the eyes.
All this wouldn’t matter though if the casting were wrong, but the performances from Corr and Stott are nothing short of breathtaking. Ryan Corr has long been an actor to watch, but his performance as Tim is a revelation. He meticulously charts both the good and bad qualities of Tim, from his brash personality and self-centredness to his tremendous compassion and determination to survive. There is enormous responsibility on his shoulders, but you never see him flinch for a moment. Complementing his bravura perfectly is Craig Stott as John. In contrast, he is far more subtle and gentle, but no less detailed or incredible. Stott captures John’s tenderness and enormous capacity for love so beautifully that he breaks your heart every moment he’s on screen, and in the final third of the film, as John is overtaken by the disease that eventually claims him, his work is so honest and unforgiving that it’s almost too upsetting to watch. Most importantly though, the chemistry between Corr and Stott is electrifying, believable and tremendously powerful.
‘Holding the Man’ is a very rare and special film. It transcends ideas of queer cinema to become a film so instantly and easily affecting to anyone, regardless of their sexuality.
The supporting cast is also fantastic, with pretty much every great Australian actor around popping in for a cameo. Geoffrey Rush, Brian Lipson, Luke Mullins, Julie Forsyth, Sarah Snook, Mitchell Butel and so many others lend their talents to the film. Particularly impressive are Kerry Fox as Tim’s mother Mary Gert, whose strength and resilience hold Tim together as tragedy approaches, and Anthony LaPaglia as John’s father Bob, who delivers his most powerful performance in years.
‘Holding the Man’ is a very rare and special film. It transcends ideas of queer cinema to become a film so instantly and easily affecting to anyone, regardless of their sexuality. It’s a significant part of our history, and a powerful statement on the true meaning of love, told with a unique Australian voice. It’s not perfect, but I can’t for the life of me tell you what its faults are, because the cumulative effect of it is so immense. It also arrives at the perfect time: a statement about love and acceptance and equality when the powers that govern this country refuse to acknowledge them.
‘Holding the Man’ is an immense and powerful achievement, both intrinsically Australian and yet unlike any other Australian film, made by a team of extraordinary artists with immense bravery and dedication, and without compromise. As someone whose life was changed (like so many other people) by Tim and John’s story, this film is a greater gift than I could have hoped for. As a lover of cinema, it excites me and intrigues me in ways I never expected. As an Australian, it makes me so immensely proud that a film and a story like this can come from our country. ‘Holding the Man’ is destined to be an Australian classic and one of our most important films.