HOLDING THE MAN. Starring Ryan Corr, Craig Stott, Anthony La Paglia, Kerry Fox, Guy Pearce, Camilla Ah Kin, Geoffrey Rush, Jane Menelaus, Sarah Snook. Directed by Neil Armfield. 107 minutes. Rated MA (strong sex scenes and nudity).
Holding the Man is a widely-read Australian biography by Tim Conigrave, published in the mid-1990s and soon afterwards developed into a play by Tommy Murphy. Murphy has now written a screenplay from the book which has been directed by Neil Armfield who has a strong reputation as a theatre director. This is a story of a relationship which began when two senior students were studying at the Jesuit Xavier College in Melbourne.(The football matches were filmed at the college itself.)
Tim Conigrave is something of a flamboyant student at school, involved in theatricals, but becoming more and more infatuated with a top soccer player, John Caleo. John came from a strong Catholic, Italian-Australian family, one of four siblings. Tim made his affections known, a young man more sexually aware, John being rather more hesitant. Eventually, they made a commitment to each other, known to some of the other boys, eventually known to the parents with hostile reactions, especially from John’s father.
The film is very well made, very well-acted, topical in many ways with discussions about same-sex relationships and commitment, acceptance in Australian society or not, understanding of homosexual orientation, and discussions, for instance, in the Catholic church, in connection with the Synod on the Family in Rome in 2014 in 2015. Because the relationship between the two boys developed in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the issue of HIV also becomes significant, especially towards the beginning of the 1990s when both of the men tested positive. The scenes with John so ill and gaunt bring home the disease with visual power.
Ryan Corr as Tim Conigrave and Craig Stott as John Caleo give quite persuasive performances, Ryan Corr having the showier character much more extroverted, and Craig Stott having to communicate the character of John Caleo more subtly and quietly. We see them change over a period of 15 years, the relationship at school with a scene of discussion with one of the Jesuit teachers at Xavier College.
The screenplay moves to the mid 1980s, with Tim auditioning for NIDA and doing the course for an acting career, going to Sydney, while John stays in Melbourne and becomes a chiropractor. The film then goes back to the late 1970s, early 1980s, with the two men as students at Monash University, coming out more explicitly, members of the gay club at the University, finding a home and friends within the gay community as well as experiencing prejudice and bashings. It is in this context that both men have to face the issue of committed relationships, of the possibilities of other partners and relationships, Tim being much more of an experimenter, John not. The last part of the film is set in the 1990s with John becoming seriously ill, Tim becoming involved in AIDS care, committed to helping John in his illness and in his death.
The parents of each man have been mentioned, but they are central to the film and the producers have chosen strong screen presences to dramatise the parents. Guy Pearce and Kerry Fox are the Conigraves, and Anthony La Paglia and Camilla Ah Kin are the Caleos. (Quite a number of Australian character actors have small cameos, sometimes walk on parts, like Kerry Walker and Julie Forsyth, Sarah Snook as a close friend, while Geoffrey Rush has some scenes as the drama lecturer at NIDA.) It is Anthony La Paglia who has the most significant scenes, discovering the reality of the relationship, mightily disapproving, ousting his son, having to face up to the reality of the relationship, having to cope with his son’s illness and death.
The film is of Catholic interest because of the two boys and their Catholic families, their schooling at Xavier College, the discussion about the relationship with the Jesuit teacher, Mary Conigrave, Tim’s sister, having a Catholic wedding with the priest at the reception and, the priest who conducted the Requiem Mass and the funeral for John Caleo, Father Woods, played by Paul Goddard, seen making comments about how he would refer to the relationship during the mass, describing them as friends, not mentioning AIDS, given the sensibilities and family and friends’ awareness and non-awareness of the situations in 1992.
Holding the Man takes its place as a significant Australian film and one which gives significant opportunity for reflection and discussion, wherever one stands on the issues.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting. Transmission Films. Released 27th August.