Review: Holding the Man

Based on the best selling memoir by Timothy Conigrave, Holding the Man (directed by Neil Armfield) has been previously adapted to a stage play in 2006 by Tommy Murphy who has also written the screenplay for this film adaptation. The story follows the relationship between actor, writer and activist Timothy Conigrave (Ryan Corr) and his partner John Caleo (Craig Stott). Both met while attending Xavier College in Melbourne in the mid-1970s and had an on-and-off relationship until their deaths in the 1990s from AIDS-related illnesses.

In Aussie rules, the term “holding the man” refers to a player tackling an opponent who doesn’t have the ball. The title is a fantastic metaphor for Tim and John’s relationship, which was seen as an ‘infringement’ on morality by society and even some of their families and friends. It was a fight that both men had to deal with all their lives.

Much of the success of Holding the Man comes from its witty and funny storytelling mixed with beautiful and heartbreaking moments. The love between Tim and John was not without trouble and consequences and the film doesn’t shy away from this. It’s easy to come away from the film thinking it was a tragic love story but to do so wouldn’t be entirely correct. It’s clear that Tim blames himself for much of the consequences both he and John endured. The sexual revolution of the era made it too easy to be careless. While Tim was not entirely loyal in the relationship, he can hardly be completely to blame. He was a flawed man who paid the ultimate price.

As the leads, Stott and Corr are fantastic together. They have good chemistry and complement each other well. This was so important for the story because without a genuine connection the heart of the story would be nonexistent. They brought a realness to the characters in a respectful way that honoured the memories of their real life counterparts.

There are some pretty big names in the supporting cast including Anthony LaPaglia and Camilla Ah Kin as Bob and Lois Caleo, Guy Pearce and Kerry Fox as Dick and Mary Conigrave, Sarah Snook as Tim’s good friend Pepe Trevor, and Geoffrey Rush as Tim’s offbeat drama teacher. While they all have a presence in the film, LaPaglia was particularly good as the homophobic father, it was really Stott and Corr’s film. There weren’t any bad performances, the spotlight just focused heavily on the leads.

There is an issue in LGBT cinema where the protagonists die. Sometimes this is unavoidable because it follows history e.g. Milk and Prayers for Bobby. Holding the Man is an important film to have because it is a good starting point for better and more open discussion about sexuality and sexual health. So to ignore the fact these two men died tragically would be insulting and counterproductive. Tim Conigrave knew the significance of politics and visibility for the queer community so his work, and by extension all adaptations of it, carry this throughout. This may be another sad LGBT film but it’s still important nonetheless.

Holding the Man won the United Nations Human Rights Award for non-fiction in 1995 and was also voted as one of the “100 Favourite Australian Books” by the Australian Society of Authors in 2003. Murphy’s stage production has gained much critical acclaim and has had a North American production and played in London’s West End. This film is another strong adaptation, which will no doubt find a new audience and gain new fans.

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