Holding the Man Review
Holding the Man begins in what turns out to be the early 1990s. Tim Conigrave (Ryan Corr) is in Italy. He's struggling to write a memoir of his fifteen-year relationship with John Caleo (Craig Stott), struggling to the extent that he calls up their longstanding friend Pepe (Sarah Snook, doing her best with an underwritten role) at what must be the middle of the night in Australia with the time difference, asking her to confirm details of past events. We then flash back to 1976, when Tim and John were both highschoolers who soon realise that they are the love of each other's life…
Timothy Conigrave did complete his memoir in 1994, ten days before his death at age thirty-four. The film is based on the subsequently published book via a stage adaptation by Tommy Murphy, here the writer of the screenplay, the story of a love ended, like so many other couples' by a big disease with a little name. Forty minutes in, we flash forward to 1984, when both Tim and John receive their HIV diagnoses, then back to 1979, 1988 and finally 1991. If AIDS is the villain of the piece, then so are the attitudes of society, or this particular segment of 1970s Australian society, represented in particular by John's father (Anthony LaPaglia). John's mother (Camille Ah Kin) and Tim's parents (Guy Pearce and Kerry Fox) are more sympathetic, but appearances are all, with John's terminal illness disguised as cancer and Tim all but airbrushed out of his life. A story that could be told many many times.
This is director Neil Armfield's first cinema feature since 2006's Candy. I had significant reservations about that film, which tended to parade its grittiness but didn't manage to hide how deeply sentimental it was. We were expected to give that film's two young junkie lovers a pass because they were good looking (as personified by Abbie Cornish, in the title role, and Heath Ledger) and artistically talented. I don't have those reservations about Holding the Man. Neither Tim nor John are especially out of the ordinary – we see Tim become an actor, but with no suggestion that he's a particularly outstanding one. The film also tackles the issue that Tim's wish for a more open relationship is the inadvertent cause of infecting them both. The final scenes are very moving.
The film is very well acted, with the two lesser-knows Corr and Stott standing out in the central roles, even when surrounded by several outstanding older actors. Geoffrey Rush (who had an eyecatching role in Candy) makes an impression in a brief appearance as Tim's acting tutor. Look even further down the cast list and you'll find two distinguished actresses from an older generation in cameos: Kerry Walker (as a woman in a lift pointedly ignoring two men kissing behind her) and Kris McQuade (as a wedding guest). There is a lot of then-contemporary music on the soundtrack, though some is a little on the nose (“Don't Fear The Reaper”, anyone?) and the version of “I Feel Love” isn't by Donna Summer but is, somewhat anachronistically, Bronski Beat's cover. Stay to the very end, after all the final credits have run, and you'll hear an audio recording of the real Tim Conigrave.