While the federal coalition sat in a “marathon” six-hour party room meeting to decide on the worth of same-sex couples and their relationships, I sat with my ex-boyfriend watching one of the sweetest, most tragic love stories I’ve ever heard playing out in a brand new medium.
It was a weird night, to say the least.
Holding the Man began as a memoir by Timothy Conigrave about his 15-year relationship with his high school sweetheart John Caleo. It was later adapted into a stage play by Tommy Murphy and has now moved to the big screen with Murphy as screenwriter and directed by Neil Armfield.
In the mid ’70s, drama nerd Tim (Ryan Corr) and his mop of hair pursue star footballer John (Craig Stott). His overtures are played with the perfect teenage naiveté but made without any shame. We follow these boys from their first, chaste kiss through the usual stages of teenage romance until a misplaced letter regarding the propriety of reaching into someone’s daks reveals the relationship to their parents, and the boys choose love over family.
Cut to a decade later, as the AIDS crisis grips the gay community and young men begin falling ill. These high school sweethearts learn under the worst of circumstances that they are infected, and face a devastating and premature end to lives filled with promise.
Holding the Man is Shakespearean in the quality of its storytelling and tragic irony – two families, a pair of forbidden lovers and a tragic and untimely end written with the purity of purpose that can only come as one stands on the edge of their cliff – Conigrave completed the source novel three weeks before his death from AIDS-related complications.
We simultaneously experience Tim Conigrave the character in all his pretentious, brazen youth and Timothy Conigrave the writer – a sober, devastated man. John is nearly voiceless in this narrative, which is an unashamed love letter from a guilty husband to his lost love. John doesn’t need to speak, or explain anything, because to Tim he is perfect.
The film is deeply Australian, but not constrained by its Australian-ness. While so many Aussie works so self-consciously interrogate their cultural validity, Holding the Man is uninterested in such prevarication and it is refreshing to feel such a security in the Australian identity.
It is also deeply consumed with the physical – expect graphic and frank depictions of gay sex, along with harrowing visions of medical procedures. Homosexuality in the Catholic context of the film is a sin of the flesh, and Armfield is very concerned we understand the material body. There is no immortal soul, no appeal to afterlife and eternity, only a fleeting today between two fragile men with whom we feel every second ticking away until, inevitably, we reach midnight.
The stage version allows Tim to address the audience in asides, giving us a deeper insight into the dynamic of the relationship between he and John – we learn more of how they became infected, the wounding and complex negotiation of queer love in a liberated age and the depth of love that brings the pair back together every time. This is absent in the film, and I felt the impact was shallower as a result. However, the film still excels in delivering its crushing emotional climax and a satisfying and self-contained story about two boys in love who suffered so much for no good reason.
Holding the Man could not come at a more important time for gays in Australia. As we stare down the barrel of a humiliating and unnecessary election campaign on our worth, we must constantly remember that we are here, we are real and we are worthy. Stories like this are vital in keeping our faith in ourselves, our bodies, our relationships and our love over a lifetime, no matter what a room full of punitive bigots can decide in six hours.
So chins up, gays. Go see Holding the Man with your ex-boyfriend, have a cry and remember that you and your love are real, important and deserve to be celebrated, no matter what a petty and terrified Canberra can lob at us.
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