When the AIDS crisis hit Australia in the 1980’s it struck the gay community with an alarming ferocity leaving an aftermath of cruel devastation. Many lives were lost, while at the same time giving a new platform for homophobia to project itself from at a community that was was feeling fractured, loss and heartbreak. However from within all this despair one of the most extraordinary tales of love would emerge that will go on to forever touch and inspire people’s lives. The love story of Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo told through the eyes of Conigrave in his memoir Holding the Man.
Holding the Man not only worked as a real-life documentation of the AIDS crisis in Sydney but it also worked as a testament to a universal love story transcending well beyond sexuality. For anyone that has experienced even the simplest forms of love, whether it may have been through a high school sweetheart, the loss of a love one, or through that of friendship, Holding the Man is a story that they would find hard not to relate to in some form or another. Now following its highly successful award-wining stage adaptation, this classic piece of Australian literature has now made it to the big screen.
Like a labour of love director Neil Armfield, along with screenwriter Tommy Murphy (who also helmed the theatre adaptation) have both lovingly and tastefully brought the beloved story to life once more and much like its source material, the adaptation takes the viewer on an unforgettable emotional roller-coaster ride that will forever change them.
Through flashbacks and forwards the viewer is taken on a captivating journey through the carefully chosen key moments in Conigrave and Caleo’s relationship. The film spends the first two acts covering the high school years when the two at first seem to have nothing in common but due to their overwhelming attraction they fall in love, then proceeding to move back and forth between the boy’s university days and their life in Sydney. In doing so it means unlike the novel and the theatre production, Conigrave and Caleo’s AIDS diagnosis takes place earlier in the story unfolding, before returning to their university days.
It is a bold decision that completely pays off by providing a juxtaposition between two distinct periods in their lives capturing their various feelings for each other and the many complexities of their relationship. In doing it this way it also leaves the viewer guessing just where exactly will the story jump to next. For those already familiar with the story it provides a sense of something new and unexpected.
Ryan Corr gives a stunning performance as the loud and exuberant Timothy Conigrave that at times is so believable you find yourself questioning whether you’re watching an actor or Conigrave himself. Corr completely owns the role, while he is equally matched on screen with Craig Stott as the quiet but lovable John Caleo. Stott’s weight loss for the role makes the character so much more believable that it breaks your heart to see Caleo as the sick-ridden frail version of himself while you long for the handsome young footballer he once was.
The chemistry that Corr and Stott share onscreen is so believable that you can’t help but fall in love with the two. Because of this you really do feel like your sharing their journey through the good times and the sad times as the events unfold onscreen. Both in my opinion are deserving of award recognition for their roles.
It goes without saying that the supporting cast also brings a great deal of depth to the story unfolding onscreen however a personal stand out for me was Anthony LaPaglia as John’s father, Bob. Probably one of his best roles to date. What wasn’t quite so visible through the theatre production, we now see onscreen a father who is clearly struggling between the love he has for his son and his own sense of deep-seeded prejudice within.
It seems especially for screenwriter Tommy Murphy, the film adaptation comes across as a labour of love years in the making, giving him the opportunity to bring Conigrave’s story to life beyond the pages of the novel and restraints that came with the stage while sharing the universal love story for a whole new generation.
Niel Armfield, Tommy Murphy, Ryan Corr, Craig Stott, the supporting cast and all those involved need to be congratulated in creating such a beautiful and moving film that will inevitably find its place amongst the best masterpieces of Australian cinema. Treating the source material with the utmost respect, the film honours and celebrates Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo’s relationship further cementing the fact that theirs is one that goes beyond labels and is a love story for all ages.
With the current state of marriage equality within Australia, Holding the Man couldn’t have come at a more perfect time further showing the fact that love does not discriminate and that same-sex relationships are a part of society whether people like to admit or not and deserve to be treated equal. This is one Australian film that truly deserves to be supported and is a must see for 2015.
However be sure to bring some tissues.