Title: Holding The Man
Director: Neil Armfield
Major Players: Ryan Corr, Craig Stott, Anthony LaPaglia
Out Of Five: Four
Melbourne is Neighbours territory. And, coincidentally, Holding The Man’s lead actor, Ryan Corr, actually starred in the soap. There’s even an uncredited cameo in the film from Anne Charleston, better known as the legendary Madge Bishop. But this is no view of the world through Erinsborough eyes.
This is based on the book of the same name by Timothy Conigrave, and traces his 15 year relationship with John Caleo. They met at school when they were teenagers in the mid-70s and stayed together until the early 90s. Tim (Ryan Corr), the more extrovert of the two, is accepted at drama school in Sydney, while John (Craig Stott) trains as a chiropractor. Despite temptations in their paths – Tim’s mainly – separations and the opposition of their parents – John’s especially – they remain a couple. And their devotion becomes even stronger when they are both diagnosed as HIV positive.
While it’s essentially a personal story, it’s set against a universal backdrop of huge social change. One when legal and social attitudes towards the gay community started to show signs of shifting, when AIDS first appeared and was viewed as a death sentence. Public awareness had started when deaths occurred in the San Francisco gay community. In the UK we had those doom-laden TV commercials, designed to inflict as much fear as possible. But what about elsewhere in the world? What about Australia, home of the stereotypical mate culture? The setting in a country not immediately associated with the 80s epidemic provides a view from another angle, not necessarily so different to the attitudes in other countries, but different nonetheless.
Both boys come from conventional families and attend a Catholic school. John’s family in particular are practising Catholics and he is the more conservative of the couple, more reserved and taking far more time over the relationship. He’s under pressure both from the school and from his family, especially his father (Anthony LaPaglia) who never accepts the relationship. Tim’s parents are more tolerant and eventually become more accepting. And if there’s an award for a Best Supporting Put-Up Bed, it goes to the one in the Conigrave household, where it’s used by John on his visits and shared by the two boys – and then puts up Tim when he stays overnight at the hospital to be with John.
It’s a film that really sneaks up on you. It doesn’t quite take you by surprise in terms of the story because you know what’s coming. The film is open about their diagnosis, just as it is about its sexual content, yet you find yourself hoping that maybe, just maybe, the drugs will mean they can stay together. But the treatment then was nothing like what it is today. So see this without tissues at your peril. The first two thirds, despite the struggles faced by the couple, are full of charm, laughs, warmth and a great soundtrack that helps plot the timeline – T Rex, Bronski Beat, Blondie. They’re an appealing couple: the showy Tim, an aspiring actor who discovers through his coach at drama school (Geoffrey Rush) that he’ll never set the acting world alight. And the quieter, more grounded John with those adorable eyelashes and thick, dark hair. They draw you into their world as you get to know them, you laugh with them – then out of nowhere the tone changes.
The performances are excellent. Ryan Corr especially as the irrepressible Tim, who loves to challenge and, as John points out, “you always have to tell the truth, don’t you?” And indeed he does. There’s some big names in small, supporting roles – Geoffrey Rush as the tutor, Guy Pearce as Tim’s dad and Kerry Fox as his mum. But it’s Anthony LaPaglia who really stands out, more than making the most of the plum role of John’s dad, a man who dearly loves his son but finds it difficult to understand, let alone tolerate, his lifestyle. Your first instinct is to despise the man for being so intransigent, but you also find a twinge of sympathy. As he says to Tim, everybody “knows” about his relationship with John. They may know, but that doesn’t mean they understand. He doesn’t. And can’t.
This has been labelled as a latter day Brokeback Mountain. That’s a touch too easy: there’s some parallels between Jack and Ennis and Tim and John but few real similarities and this is a film that takes us on to different territory. The ending, however, will devastate you. All the more so because it’s true.
Holding The Man is released in key cities on Friday, 3 June and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 2 June.