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Holding the Man is intensely real

Film & TV

Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding the Man is, in many ways, the gay Australian male story.

Not that most have been lucky enough to have the kind of extraordinary enduring romance that defined Conigrave’s life, or unlucky enough to have their lives cut short in the early days of HIV/AIDS, but there’d be few gay men living in Australia who couldn’t recognise at least part of their lives in the story of Conigrave and his partner John Caleo.

The book is a kind of rite-of-passage for most gay men living here – it’s more or less mandatory reading, and even if you have no strong connection to the gay “community”, it serves as an extraordinary but simple reminder that while you may feel like an “other” at some point, there are others who have lived and survived similar experiences. It’s also a valuable, unique and compelling personal account of the early history of HIV/AIDS in Australia (which hasn’t been covered nearly as much as HIV/AIDS in the US).

I read it when I was 19 but found it a little too affecting, and had to stop halfway through and return to complete it several months later. The emotional journey it puts into words is vivid and immediate, and Conigrave lets you so deeply into his life that Tim and John start to feel like close friends. It’s that honesty and openness which has seen John and Tim’s story travel around the world.

In 2006, the book received a hugely successful stage adaptation written by Tommy Murphy, and now Muprhy has returned to the material for a film version, which premiered on Sunday at the closing gala of the Sydney Film Festival.

Directed by Neil Armfield, the film is a funny, warm, gentle and understated affair which never shies away from the scale of the love story it portrays – from John and Tim’s meeting at Melbourne’s Xavier College as students, through to their final moments together in a hospital ward. There’s an electric performance from Ryan Corr as Tim, which is offset by Craig Stott’s more restrained take on John.

Holding the Man 2

There are a few moments which don’t quite gel – particularly the framing device at the beginning and the end of the film – but this is nonetheless a fine and significant film. And it’s packed full of some of our most beloved actors, from Guy Pearce, Anthony LaPaglia, Kerry Fox and Camilla Ah Kin as the parents, to impactful brief appearances from Geoffrey Rush, Mitchell Butel and Luke Mullins (and a charming cameo from Trevor Ashley).

The soundtrack, with both rocking ’70s and ’80s tunes and original compositions by Alan John, is particularly evocative.

The sold-out crowd for the premiere at Sydney’s State Theatre was packed with gay men of all ages, many of whom would have clearly anticipated this film for a long time. The reaction was hugely passionate at the end of the film, but something rather unexpected happened early on in the story.

The lightly funny, awkward opening scenes of young love and coming out felt surprisingly broad and hilarious. While many of the audience members gasped when John’s parents discovered the true nature of his relationship with Tim, or when Tim’s parents told him he was headed for a sad and lonely life, many gay men simply couldn’t help but laugh. Not to undercut the seriousness of the situation or the quality of the storytelling, but because it was just so intensely real – the fine personal tragedy which is the root of the best comedy.

Every slightly awkward look, moment of painful family dysfunction and every scene where lust rules all was immediately, painfully recognisable. Many gay men have a way of putting that kind of pain behind by laughing it off and finding a collective joy in that irreverence. I doubt this film will get that kind of raucous reaction anywhere else.

When the film takes its turn towards tragedy, the laughter largely died down (although there are still some moments of brilliant black comedy). It’s here that it’s at its gentlest and most affecting, even if it can’t quite reach the emotional heights of the source material.

On leaving the screening, I spoke to a friend who was concerned that it treads ground that has already been covered in film and theatre. And they’re not wrong. We’ve seen more white gay male romances than stories about lesbians or trans people or queer people of colour, and Holding the Man is very much a product of 1993.

Queer storytellers have largely moved past the classic HIV/AIDS narrative and the difficult stories of coming out to a devout religious family.

But Holding the Man is a seminal gay text, and its screen adaptation has been a long time coming. The subjects it deals with were absolutely the truth for Tim and John, and that’s what makes the film so funny, therapeutic and ultimately shattering.

Holding the Man will be released in cinemas on August 27.

This review was first published on The Daily Review.


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