Holding the Man (2015) is an Australian drama based on the true story of Timothy Conigrave and his long-term partner John Caleo. The story previously reached the stage in a play written by Conigrave himself, and here it is Neil Armfield of Candy (2006) fame bringing it to the big screen.
The film takes place 70s and 80s Melbourne and Sydney. Needless to say attitudes toward homosexual relationships have changed a great deal in that time. Holding the Man succeeds on some levels at bringing that out, but also falls short on a few key parts of it. The film is quite slow to get going and the pace of the narrative is laborious throughout unfortunately. It struggles to establish a sense of place, the school environment for young gay men never feeling fleshed out or explained. Conigrave and Caleo’s connection and love story is the major strength of the film early on. But just when this is being established really well, the story jumps ahead a decade or so. This calls to attention the major issue with the film’s structure, namely the time-shifts. In a film covering a timeframe as long as this, it is inevitable that they will be required but they don’t work. The initial jump strips away a lot of the power in the love story, which to that point was the best part of the film. There is too much time between the shifts, so you forget if the story has gone forward or back, leaving the viewer (well this viewer), confused. The aspects of the film played with a lighter touch play well. It’s cool to see a funny gay sex scene, where there is not a need to portray it as overtly sexy or serious, whilst the fun times with the university gay rights advocacy group channel the joyful spirit of Pride (2014) for a time.
As well as being a love story, the film also presents the devastating impact of AIDS during this time period. We see this in the connection between Timothy and John, how this evolves as the disease plays a greater role in their lives, but also more broadly, in the depiction of other men with the disease and the hospitals they spend their final weeks. The portrayal of the disease, and its bearing on the men that contract it, is truly crushing. Although it’s a minor part of the film, it is inspirational to see the doctors and social workers, working on the frontline of AIDS services back in the day. At other times though, the film struggles to find the tenderness and emotion that should be so plain. Eventually the film lands that with its finale, but moments throughout the film like the wedding dance between Conigrave and his dad, played by Guy Pearce, which is tender and gets to the heart of the story, are far too rare. If there is one overwhelming reason to see Holding the Man, it is the performance of Ryan Corr. Initially, he does a great job of establishing the world of the film. He is an awkward teenager, seemingly comfortable in his sexuality, though not so much in life more generally (like 95% of teens I guess). There is a mixture of confidence and insecurity in Conigrave and Corr is able to draw both of those aspects out and occasionally combine them in a really impressive way. Aside from some slightly dusty turns in minor roles, the cast is excellent overall. It is so good to see Anthony Lapaglia doing his thing. The dude has gravitas and we don’t see him in enough. Sarah Snook and Guy Pearce are both excellent, as they pretty much are in everything, though both of their characters are very minor in terms of screen time.
Verdict: Even though it’s not really a story that has been told a lot, Holding the Man often feels pretty tired in its telling. However the performance from Ryan Corr is borderline transcendent and worth the price of admission alone, not to mention that the film is legitimately affecting when it manages to eventually find the heart of the story. Stubby of Reschs