Two Melbourne schoolboys defy their parents and Catholic schooling to fall in love in director Neil Armfield’s Holding the Man, an affecting and unexpectedly funny tale of two lovers who had the misfortune to come of age during the burgeoning HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980’s. Adapted from Timothy Conigrave’s 1995 memoir of the same name, published a year after the death of its author, the film version is written by Tommy Murphy, who adapted the book for the Sydney stage in 2006. That play went to the West End, San Francisco and Los Angeles (where it was directed by Larry Moss), and this fleet, peerlessly acted film adaptation should find an equally warm welcome around the world after its August bow on home turf.
Best known as Russell Crowe’s son in The Water Diviner, Ryan Corr plays Tim, who’s in the same geography class as his football-star crush John Caleo (Craig Stott). They meet when John wakes up in hospital after an on-field collision to find a smiling Tim patiently attending him as if they were old friends. This tableau is a harbinger of what’s to come, though Murphy’s screenplay is anything but portentous. Covering roughly a span of 20 years, from school to university to the pair’s shock positive-diagnosis and decline, the script crams in incident but feels light as a feather, and refreshingly free of maudlin sentiment.
Tim is introduced rehearsing a production of Romeo and Juliet. He can’t seem to summon the requisite emotion over the corpse of his beloved Juliet — “You’ve lost your fiancée, not your bus pass,” notes his weary teacher — until he imagines John on the slab and his inner Brando is unleashed. Casting director Nikki Barrett no doubt had her work cut out finding actors who could convincingly play 16 to 34, but Corr and Stott’s work is seamless. Rising star Sarah Snook (Predestination, the upcoming Steve Jobs) plays one of their best friends in a role that feels like it’s been mostly left on the cutting-room floor.
At university the boys get in fights with campus bigots, but for the most part Armfield’s is neither an indignant film nor an evangelizing one, and devoid of easy villains. A priest reads a love letter from Tim to John and summons the pair to his office, but he’s no scathing puritan: “We’ve seen this sort of thing before,” he says. Tim’s parents, played by Kerry Fox and Guy Pearce with a Don Johnson wig, are loving but aggrieved, sure that their son will end up living a very lonely life if he doesn’t shrug John off as a childish phase. While John’s parents (Camilla Ah Kin and Anthony LaPaglia) are initially grateful to Tim for bringing their boy out of his shell, then plainly shocked. LaPaglia, in particular, is powerfully moving as a sternly loving father utterly at sea.
Tim gets in to the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney (Corr’s alma mater as well as his character’s), where Geoffrey Rush shows up as a stuffed shirt teaching the rudiments. Old sparring partners Armfield and Rush (who together toured Ionesco’s Exit the King to New York in 2009) have great fun sending up the kind of theater games on which they were weaned. When the class is rolling around the floor pretending to be chimps, Rush’s Barry tartly informs Tim “there’s not a lot of work for effeminate monkeys”.
Off the leash in the big smoke, Tim sows his wild oats and then some, and Holding the Man’s evocation of Sydney in the 80’s is lovingly detailed. Josephine Ford’s design and Alice Babidge’s costumes give the film a gently nostalgic hue, as befits a feature-length valediction, but the sense of period remains just recessive enough not to drown out everything else. Likewise the medley of period pop tunes that make up the film’s score.
Armfield and editor Dany Cooper have opted to chop the chronology up, with cards announcing the years scrolling across screen, though they’re hardly necessary. The travails of the central pair are touching in the way only a frank portrait of coupledom can be, and this is the sort of film around which the phrase “timeless love story” will no doubt be much bandied about. But Holding the Man is distinguished by its evocation of a specific time and place. Driving to his son’s deathbed, LaPaglia wonders aloud: “How did this happen”? Armfield’s compassionate, even-handed film might be a paean to young love, but it’s also a time capsule of an era that felt frighteningly apocalyptic.
Production Company: Goalpost Pictures
Cast: Ryan Corr, Craig Stott, Sarah Snook, Anthony LaPaglia, Camilla Ah Kin, Kerry Fox, Guy Pearce, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Hobbs, Luke Mullins
Director: Neil Armfield
Writer: Tommy Murphy
Producer: Kylie Du Fresne
Executive Producers: Rosemary Blight, Ben Grant, Cameron Huang, Andrew Mackie, Richard Payten, Tristan Whalley
Director of Photography: Germain McMicking
Production Designer: Josephine Ford
Costume Designer: Alice Babidge
Editor: Dany Cooper
Casting Director: Nikki Barrett
Sales: Goalpost Films
No rating, 128 minutes