Holding The Man is evidence, if it were needed, of how difficult it is for gay-themed movies to crossover into the mainstream. Despite glowing reviews and a cast including Aussie luminaries such as Guy Pearce, Anthony LaPaglia and (briefly) Geoffrey Rush, as well as Kerry Fox (who’s actually a New Zealander), the movie has largely managed to fly under the radar, and a year on from its Australian debut it’s still waiting for a US release date.
However, it’s now arrived in the UK thanks to Peccadillo Pictures. Based on Tim Conigrave’s bestselling memoir, the film covers a roughly 15-year period, starting in the mid-70s when Tim (Ryan Corr) is in a Catholic high school and first begins hanging out with his crush, John (Craig Scott). It doesn’t take them long before they admit that they like each more than just friends. Inevitably their teenage love faces obstacles when the school and then their parents discover what is going on.
The star-crossed lovers split up – perhaps not surprising due to Tim’s rather selfish and often overly outspoken ways – get back together and deal with growing up in a time when gay people had only recently started coming out publicly onto the streets and society wasn’t always welcoming. It’s also a time of growing gay hedonism, something Tim particularly experiences during his time at drama school. As you may have guessed due to the era its dealing with, the story also comes face-to-face with the 1980s AIDS crisis, interspersing Tim’s AIDS activism, diagnosis, and the fact John becomes symptomatic before Tim, with the story of their earlier relationship.
Although some have suggested that Holding The Man underplays the homophobia and difficulties of the period – and there is undoubtedly an element of that – it nevertheless successfully manages to show that these things were going on, while concentrating on the enduring love between the two men, and the constant possibility for hope and redemption. Early on the film heavily underlines the idea that this is a modern day Romeo & Juliet, where the main characters may not survive to the end, but the most important thing is not the deaths, but the depth of the love they felt.
Although the anger at the AIDS crisis in the likes of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is vital, alongside that a passionate but perhaps more human look at that time, with moments reminding us there was compassion and love alongside great callousness and institutionalised cruelty, is also important.
Holding The Man does a great job of managing to mix sadness and happiness, as well as including a surprising amount of humour. It consciously avoids too much maudlin sentiment, while ensuring it doesn’t avoid the emotion inherent in its story. It would also undoubtedly be a lesser movie without Anthony LaPaglia, who puts in a truly brilliant turn as John’s father Bob, a man who never expected to have a gay son and who is completely unprepared to deal with it. While never completely rejecting his son, LaPaglia’s performance and the way the film deals with the character brings a surprising amount of power to the film. That’s particularly true towards the end when Bob does things that seems cruel, but becomes his only way to express his anger and conflicted feelings.
When watching the movie, it becomes clear though that, like Pride, there’s a reason it hasn’t found as wide mainstream appeal and success as it perhaps ought to have, and that is the fact that it is unabashedly gay. It isn’t coy about it, such as timider films that stick to gay words rather than gay deeds. These are gay guys who do gay things and the film brings that to the fore. While at one point Tim’s drama teacher reminds him he is more than just his sexuality, this is a movie that wants to show that statements like that can just be a way to try and get people to hide the breadth of their sexuality, from those who rather wouldn’t see.
Unfortunately, there are plenty out there who would still prefer not to see, and the mainstream film world is still largely afraid of showing them, no matter the pedigree of the movie. Indeed, going back to The Normal Heart and more particularly its 2014 film version, it is a slightly odd thing that despite the power of its words, a film like Holding The Man is probably truer to what it was actually like to be an average gay person who lived through the AIDS crisis, bringing out the highs alongside the lows. Although a fictionalised take, it’s worth remembering with Holding The Man that you are watching the life of a real person who didn’t survive to live through it, but that the thing he most wanted to leave behind wasn’t anger, sadness and recriminations – it was the memory of his love.
Overall Verdict: A moving and thought-provoking adaptation of Tim Conigrave’s acclaimed memoir, that successfully evokes a memory of real love amidst a world of trial and tragedy during the 1980s ADS crisis.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac