Holding The Man, the memoir of Timothy Conigrave, is given a big screen adaptation (with a screenplay by Tommy Murphy, who had previously written the play based on Conigrave’s autobiography) in this thoughtfully produced film which follows the loves and losses in the lives of its protagonists across the decades, as well as reflecting upon their friends’ and relatives’ reactions to their relationship and a commentary on the time in which the story is set. The depiction of love and tragedy where certain sections of society don’t wish to understand ‘forbidden’ romance, is reflected in the opening scene, where wannabe actor Timothy auditions for a part in the school production of Romeo and Juliet.
1993, Italy. Timothy Conigrave (Ryan Corr) telephones his friend because he he is desperate to confirm one of his memories about John Caleo (Craig Stott) – he wants to know precisely where John sat at a table when they dined as teenagers. Their story started in 1976, at school, when budding actor Tim decided that he wanted to pursue John, who captains the Australian football team. His plan works – and soon the pair become inseparable. Their relationship is emotional and loving and clearly benefits both boys, as John’s father Bob (Anthony LaPaglia) notes, ‘John’s changed, we’ve all noticed’, but in the context of what he believes to be a simple friendship. But the boys have to balance expectations from their relationship, not only from each other – ‘If all we do is hug, that’s enough for me’ – but also from society as a whole where they face support from their friends, endure ridicule from some classmates and, more worryingly, the disapproval of their parents and their Catholic school at a time when homosexuality is illegal. When the truth behind their increasingly passionate relationship is revealed, Tim’s family disapprove while an incensed Bob declares that ‘You and John can’t see each other any more,’ even threatening court action against their illegal activities. But they remain lovers. Some years later, in 1979, Tim is studying at Monash University and actively participating with Gay Soc. When he returns home to see his first true love John, he literally has to go into the closet when John’s family arrives home unexpectedly. But they cannot hide their true passions, boldly declaring, ‘But we love each other, dad’. Into the 1980s their careers, dreams and aspirations alter, although they still remain impenetrably in love, even when separated for long periods and letting themselves experiment with a more open relationship whereupon they take other lovers. But times are changing and the emergence of AIDS reveals consequences which will have a profound and critical impact on so many lives, including those of the lovers whose relationship started, as sweethearts, in school.
Holding The Man is a poignant adaptation of Conigrave’s memoirs that places the love between two individuals in a wider thematic and social context which also reflects changes in situations and attitudes across the years, but also how some prejudices remain even within the darkest of times. Although upsetting and moving it is not without joy, humour and a good deal of passion. This is aided by a great soundtrack that places each sequence in its time which is particularly helpful as the story moves back and forth in time. The first half of the story depicts the developing romance between the pair but when their illness is revealed, the consequences range from abject remorse when Tim realises that he may ‘have killed the man I love,’ to one of the most moving, subtle and romantic intercourse scenes delicately yet explicitly portrayed when the two realise the possibilities of the outcome. John’s illness is shown with a great honesty as Tim cares for his lover in a hospital environment, knowing that he, too, has his own health problems to address. Holding the Man is a celebration of how a lifelong passion endured amidst animosity, hatred and grief. The role of Tim and John’s parents evolves over the years to develop some form of acceptance of their love, albeit with Bob’s brutal approach to their financial affairs (a minor aspect in some respects but vital in understanding the prejudices that the pair had to endure) and refusal to publicly acknowledge Tim as John’s partner.
Ultimately, Holding the Man is a moving romance that stands out as a testament to love. Extra features on the DVD include interviews with the director and writer of this project. It is worth watching the credits right to the end as you will see footage of the real Tim and John.