film review: holding the man
It’s a sad fact, but most Australians don’t want to watch Australian films. Many will claim that Aussie films are boring, dull and poorly made, and it’s easy to blame audiences for their lack of devotion to their local film industry. However, it’s more accurate to blame the industry itself for the films it makes.
Australian films tend to fall into two categories. The first being those grimy, gritty, depressing films which leave little for mainstream audiences to feel good about; I mean, no one walked out of Animal Kingdom or Snowtown feeling joyful. The second is the cheesy, feel-good movie, which can either be a hit (The Sapphires, Red Dog) or a miss (Wog Boy 2, Kath and Kimderella).
Holding the Man breaks the mould by easily fitting into both categories; it will leave you feeling incredibly depressed whilst also making you feel uplifted. But mainly really sad, with big puffy red eyes. The first film by Neil Armfield since his indie hit Candy (Heath Ledger’s last Australian film) in 2006, Holding the Man is an adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s beloved memoir, an epic love story of two young men that spans many years. Tim (Ryan Corr) and John (Craig Stott) meet in high school in the late 70s; Tim is an aspiring actor who feels more confident about his emerging sexuality, whereas John is an Aussie Rules player from a conservative family unsure about how to act on his desire for Tim.
Told through a mixture of flashbacks and flash-forwards, we witness the strains placed upon Tim and John’s relationship over the years. From their naïve days at university, to their time apart when they were forced to live in different cities, to the heartbreaking realisation that they have both contracted AIDS, it’s a brutally realistic portrayal of a life-long love with all the complicated speed bumps along the way.
Supporting roles come from the likes of Anthony LaPaglia as John’s super conservative, Catholic father, who initially forbids the relationship between the two young men, but over time faces his own demons and homophobia. Guy Pearce and Kerry Fox also have small roles as Tim’s more sympathetic parents, and could have appeared more often on screen. Sarah Snook is lovely as Tim and John’s high school friend, Pepe.
Both Corr and Stott are incredibly moving in their roles and carry the film extremely well for its difficult subject matter. Their chemistry is electric and certainly helps give the film the essential realism needed. As both their characters age and their bodies deteriorate from disease, their performances remain strong, giving their characters a poignant dignity.
Both the evils of homophobia and the false assumptions placed upon AIDS victims are explored and handled with sympathetic care by Armfield. It’s more than just a movie about being gay in the 70s and 80s: Holding the Man is a familiar narrative of forbidden love and fighting for what is right. It may seem like an obvious move to compare Holding the Man to a more mainstream Hollywood LBQTI film like Brokeback Mountain, but the truth is that the two films have a lot in common beyond the “tragic gay romance” aspect.
When it was first released in 2005, Brokeback Mountain was constantly labelled as the “gay cowboy love story”, and that alone. Although it did have many important things to say about the treatment of gay men in the 60s, it was more importantly and simply a classic love story that just happened to be between two men. It seems fitting for Holding the Man to be released on Brokeback Mountain’s 10-year anniversary to show how far LGBQTI films have come since Ang Lee’s ground-breaking masterpiece.
For an Australian film, Holding the Man ticks all the stereotypical boxes; it’s sad, it’s funny, it’s a little quirky and cheeky, but most importantly it has a lot of heart. It explores an incredibly important time in the LGBQTI movement and a moment in Australian history where we seemed to have moved beyond our ingrained, larrikin homophobia, to support those who were in desperate need of understanding and compassion. Australian film has always been great at showcasing LGBQTI lives, with such monumental films as Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, The Sum of Us and Head On; now Holding the Man can be added to the list of Australian films that are ground breaking, interesting, and important.