The marketing – a big poster – claims that it’s a love story for everybody, but the reality is that Holding The Man is the first great Australian movie about the AIDS crisis, filtered through, yes, a great romance – but it isn’t a mainstream Friday night flick. This film – to its credit – includes some of the most challenging sexual material ever seen in an Australian mainstream film. It’s a “queer” piece of cinema, but one with ambitions to break through mainstream barriers, and it will, among the enlightened, echoing its own story.
The underlying text here is a memoir by Tim Conigrave about his relationship with John Caleo; it was amazingly intimate and immediate, and in hindsight, provided a close examination of the AIDS crisis as it swept through Sydney. Neil Armfield’s film does it brilliant justice. It’s gripping even as the conflicts within it are quite unexceptional. Problems with the parents are the main – indeed almost only – conflicts for this loving couple until, of course, the disease comes along. That’s the monster. But it’s obviously enough.
So instead of a movie with a lot of conflict, we get a gorgeous romantic tragedy. It’s not dissimilar to Love Story, or the slightly belaboured analogy of Romeo and Juliet – Conigrave’s Capulets, played by Guy Pearce and Kerry Fox, are liberal, while Caleo’s are Catholic and decidedly not into his love affair. But it’s wonderfully directed, and it’s perfectly acted. Ryan Corr is amazing as Tim Conigrave. He’s emotionally present but also appropriately distant as Conigrave must have been, as he simultaneously discovered love and ambition; as his slightly less contentious and complicated lover John, Craig Stott portrays heart-breaking innocence. He never gets to know what hit him.
This is a deeply complicated story with a very difficult concept at its heart: what if your misbehaviour has literally killed the person you love? It’s beautifully told.