Based upon Australian Timothy Conigrave’s 1995 autobiography that spawned a well-received 2006 stage play by Tommy Murphy, Holding the Man is now a four-star motion picture in which gay love’s first bloom, homophobia, infidelity, and the onslaught of AIDS, collide.
A highly romantic piece of filmmaking, Holding the Man can be seen on Netflix and Amazon Prime, as well as on DVD, and various other digital downloads.
Whether in book, stage play, or this motion picture form, the turbulent story of Timothy Conigrave’s short life, focusing primarily upon his relationship with John Caleo, is compelling, joyous, and ultimately, heartbreaking.
It launches in late 1970s Melbourne, Australia. Tim Conigrave is a Catholic high school student playing an uninspired Romeo in his school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Blandly surveying Juliet’s lifeless corpse, the student actor must be reminded by his teacher-director, “You’ve just lost your fiancée, not your bus pass.”
But Tim blazes passion as it concerns handsome, high school soccer star, John Caleo.
Surprisingly the athlete returns Tim’s romantic feelings.
Undaunted by the harsh, prejudicial beliefs of the day, Tim and John start dating. But when John’s parents discover a love note, his father forbids him from seeing Tim again. Despite Mr. Caleo’s dictum, John and Tim become even closer.
In what is the filmmakers’ most serious failing, the rampant homophobia of the 1970s is glossed over in favor of focusing exclusively on the romance. So we never see, nor do we hear about, the dire consequences the boys would have faced if they had been outed at school.
Gay marriage is still decades away. So, like many gay couples of the day, Tim and John become live-in lovers – their de facto marriage having no legal protection or rights.
The story transitions smoothly into the early 1980s, and the times they are still a changing. Gay hedonism is rampant, and at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, in Sydney, Tim succumbs to its allure – sowing enough wild oats to qualify him for a farm loan.
Back home, John is horrified by his lover’s promiscuity. And neither man can imagine that they will pay the ultimate price for Tim’s debauchery.
The horrifyingly apocalyptic advent of the AIDS era rears its lethal head, and suddenly challenges more daunting than homophobia must be faced.
The leads, Ryan Carr and Craig Scott, are handsome and talented – their emotional and physical interpretations of their roles are flawless, even when the screenplay occasionally stumbles
Several stars are used effectively in smaller roles. Anthony LaPaglia is John’s homophobic father: Scandalized by his son’s sexual orientation, Mr. Caleo is unable to change the boy’s baked in sexual orientation or his love for Tim.
Guy Pearce, wearing a Troy Donahue-like surfer wig, is barely recognizable, but effective, as Tim’s father. Clueless Mr. Conigrave hopes against hope that Tim will outgrow his same gender attractions.
At the Institute of Dramatic Arts, Geoffrey Rush has a nice, if brief, turn as a teacher.
SSS Spoiler Alert SSS
In a heartbreaking Memorial service following John’s passing, Tim is denied the spousal status he has earned
I couldn’t help but think about how many times that particular injustice has been played out throughout humanity’s homophobic history.
Another pang of heartbreak gripped me when Tim admits to himself that, by way of his sexual straying, he is responsible for killing John, the one person he most loved.
In real life, Tim Conigrave perished, too, just days after the book publication of Holding the Man.
This movie version clearly achieves classic love story status, even if the filmmakers mostly skirt the more dangerous, homophobic aspects of the times in which the young lovers come together.
If you want romance with a capital R – served up with unsavory side dishes of tragedy, regret, and social injustice, then you can hardly do better than Holding the Man.