Adapted from a 1995 memoir of the same name by Australian actor Timothy Conigrave, Holding the Man recounts the star-crossed love of a lifetime between the writer and his athletic, handsome beau, John Caleo. Both men would succumb to AIDS-related illnesses and it is a pity that this layered and temporally-shifting recollection, that spans more than fifteen years, registers so little genuinely stirring emotion given the rollercoaster tale of woe at hand. What should be a heart-wrenching viewing experience remains disappointingly flat despite two dedicated performances – from Ryan Corr and Craig Stott – that attempt to bring some intensity of feeling to Neil Armfield’s film.
However, the director’s development of character and material does no more than skim the surface and odd editing choices stunt any rhythm or palpable conflict. Equally, while he very successfully brought Conigrave’s source text to the stage – both Down Under and in London’s West End – theatre director turned screenwriter Tommy Murphy has penned a script of similarly aloof contrivances and clichés that doesn’t transfer well to the big screen. Perhaps most significant of all is the downplaying of the bigger, uglier picture of how those with the disease were treated in its nascent years. The uncertainty, misunderstanding and assumptions that were made when so little concrete information was available during the 1980s fall by the wayside, with John’s bigoted father (Anthony LaPaglia) and a momentary scuffle in a bar the only real exhibitions of homophobic ignorance.
Bookended by a picture-postcard excursion Timothy (Corr) took in the early 90s to an Italian island, Holding the Man – the title taken from an Aussie rules infraction – gets going back in 1976 at the boys’ Jesuit high school. The cross-cutting of Romeo & Juliet rehearsals and a game of footy pits the jock and thespian against one another. As surely, and inexplicably, as the buttered side of toast landing face down, opposites attract as soon as the goofy actor signs the stud’s cast after the aforementioned foul leads to a broken leg. With limited narrative backing, assumptions have to be made about sexual orientation very swiftly and before we know it there are fumblings in the bike shed, declarations of love and doe-eyes a-plenty. Later caught in the act of getting rather hot and heavy, there is an unnatural lack of repercussion – a group of mates instead streaking into town. It’s alternately convenient and quite unbelievable. Moving back and forwards in time repeatedly, a shunning from home, university activism, separation and reunion, various betrayals, a life-changing diagnosis for both partners and consequent scenes of gruelling hospital treatment became agonisingly formulaic rather than agonisingly cathartic.
To call Guy Pearce’s appearance as Tim’s father a cameo would be generous; as is the case for Kerry Fox as his mother and the slightest of parts for Geoffrey Rush as a drama school teacher that leaves no impression at all. An Australian audience, well-versed in this story, will have come to Holding the Man with sufficient knowledge to fill in the blanks, but viewers elsewhere will lament the lack of depth and impact of a project that could have been so much more.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens