Based on Tim Conigrave’s memoir of the same name, Holding The Man is the touching love story between aspiring actor and writer Conigrave and his partner of fifteen years John Caleo. Spanning over three decades, this Aussie couple faced many hardships ever since their high school romance started in the 70s. Published in 1995, the book has become a worldwide famous cult classic of Australian literature and has spawned an award-winning theatre adaptation, which had a successful run in the West End as well. Being only 15 at the time, growing up in Sicily where this kind of progressive literature wasn’t widely advertised or accessible, I missed out on learning about this moving true story. In hindsight though, being unaware of the events depicted on screen allowed the film’s powerful message to affect my mind and soul much more deeply, especially as a gay man about to get married.
At an all-boys Catholic high school in the mid 70s, John (Craig Stott) is the handsome and athletic captain of the rugby team whilst Tim (Ryan Corr) is the aspiring actor auditioning for the school rendition of Romeo and Juliet. A hopeless romantic, energetic and always smiling, Tim starts courting John the moment he notices him and is eventually able to breach into the heart of the reserved athlete. Even John’s father acknowledges how his son has come out of his shell and thanks Tim for having such a positive influence on John. Of course, the strict Italian Catholic man has the polar opposite reaction when he accidentally bumps into a love letter Tim wrote to John. And although Tim’s parents are more malleable about their son’s secret, they still advise him to desist from romantically pursuing John, since the world they live in is not ready for it.
In the best tradition of star-crossed lovers fighting against all odds, Tim and John ignore any veto imposed by their families and their school and flee together in the night, promising eternal love to each other, unaware of the challenges they’ll have to face in order to be together. A flash-forward to the mid 80s in Sidney, where they have moved, gives us a glimpse of how the infamous threat of the 80s AIDS crisis is looming over their relationship’s well being. Yet before delving deeper into the hardest time in their lives, the story goes back to the beginning of the decade, when they attend university and Tim’s artistic and exuberant personality gets caught up in the sexual liberation pervading their new environment.
John is more than perplexed when Tim proposes an open relationship and jealousy ensues but upon Tim being accepted to theatre school and moving to Sidney, the long distance becomes the excuse for a break. Such set backs can’t defeat the genuine love between these two high school sweethearts and with John moving to Sidney the couple seem off to a fresh start in their relationship. However, AIDS’ daunting menace ruins the idyll and poses the greatest challenge that these young men have ever faced. If, like me, you’re not acquainted with this moving true tale of forbidden love, any further plot details risk to ruin your viewing experience. Suffice to say Tim becomes an activist, fighting passionately for gay rights.
Given such setting, it’s not difficult to imagine how this story is bound to pull your heartstrings but both screenwriter Tommy Murphy (who also adapted the book for the stage) and director Neil Armfield do a marvelous job at avoiding the pitfalls of melodramatic tropes, and deliver an earnest portrait of such a delicate time in the history of the LGBTQ community. I haven’t been able to read the book yet but those who have actually lived the story in real life have been supportive of this adaptation.
From the impeccable production values and cinematography faithfully reproducing the various eras, to the terrific cast pouring every drop of their soul into bringing these real people to life on screen, Holding The Man is an emotional triumph. Both veteran thespians like Anthony La Paglia (John’s father) and Guy Pearce (Tim’s father) and rising stars like Sarah Snook (Tim’s best friend) leave a mark, no matter how limited their screen time is. But of course the film is mainly a showcase for newcomers Ryan Corr and Craig Stott who respectively play Tim and John with such vividness and heart that it’s impossible to remain indifferent to their struggles.
Reflecting on the story’s power, screenwriter Tommy Murphy has underlined how “one of the things about the great universals of this love story is that to love someone is to fear losing them and we need to hold on to every moment. At the same time there’s something so special about Tim and John as people, as a couple, so that even those who may disapprove, will appreciate that their destiny is to be together forever.”
Director Neil Armfield who comes from theatre as well and directed the late great Heath Ledger in the underrated Candy (2006), another intense and complicated love story, “hopes the film is alive to its period without being enslaved by it and that it’s open to all the wit, desire, heartache, love and playfulness that Tim and John summoned in their extraordinary life together. But above all, he hopes this is an intimate film – he wants us to breathe with the boys and feel that we share the air between them. So that, more than anything, we know what it was like. “
There’s no doubt the filmmaker has managed to accomplish all that – Holding The Man takes you on an emotional journey that’s hard to forget and feels so timely. The progress our community has made is extremely encouraging but every day we hear stories that remind us how so much work still needs to be done all around the world. That’s why films like this are important to open the hearts and minds of new generations, spreading the good word that love is love, no matter what.