Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding the Man has been a queer staple in Australia since its release in 1995. From conversations I’ve had, the novel is a key element in the Australian coming out welcome package, similar to Americans passing around Armistead Maupin’s Tales From the City (which ended up on my bookshelf). The universal appeal primarily stemmed from containing a range of experiences from coming of age all the way through living as an out adult, appealing to any gay male reader whenever they picked up the novel.
20 years later, Neil Armfield finally creates the cinematic adaptation of Holding the Man, and it’s breathtaking. In one way, Holding the Man is a movie adaptation of a novel that was very much of its time. In another, it breathes new life into a story that had been exhausted years ago. Holding the Man is Timothy’s elegy to his boyfriend John Caleo, with whom he had a 15-year relationship starting as teenagers until John’s death in 1992. The film opens with Timothy as an adult running to the phone in a panic and lamenting that he’s starting to forget the details of their relationship; as with Other People, John’s death is inevitable.
In 1977, Timothy (Ryan Corr) falls in love with John (Craig Stott), the captain of their Catholic High School football team. Against their family’s wishes, they start a relationship that must be kept secret from the condemning eyes of their family and other homophobic peers. Once graduated, they go off to college in the early 80s and face a radically open queer culture that had yet to be devastated by AIDS. After navigating college, they grow together as adults, until they too have to face HIV.
Even if each of these movies have been made before – coming out in an oppressive culture, college age radical queers, and the AIDS movie – they’ve rarely been assembled as a single movie with one relationship providing a singular anchor to tie them together. Director Neil Armfield clearly has a love of the subject and an obsession over making every piece feel authentic to the novel even if it exists in a heightened reality. A remarkably assured second feature, Armfield surrounded himself with talent in every position possible. Cinematographer Germain McMicking pulls triple duty by nailing the tonal shifts from pleasant nostalgia to AIDS-y melodrama. Corr and Stott possess a palpable affection for each other through multiple eras and bad haircuts (oh yes, the teenagers are given cliche bad haircuts to compensate for having the same actors through multiple eras). The production designer nails the feel of cinema of those eras. To invert a line from David Schmader, it seems that almost everybody is on the top of their game at most possible moments.
Holding the Man tragically flew under the radar by not getting a theatrical release (seriously?!), even if it is a singularly solid film about gay men, far stronger than the likes of Stonewall (Yeah, Roland Emmerich, I still haven’t forgotten about you, motherfucker) and The Imitation Game (you neither Morten Tyldum). It earns its lengthy run time (128 minutes),is gorgeous…just don’t forget the handkerchiefs.
Holding the Man streams on Netflix