Holding the Man is an Australian-made romantic drama directed by Neil Armfield. The title is a nicely enigmatic one – and I suppose can mean whatever you want it to mean. After all, the romance in question is between two men, so there is quite a lot of man holding. The title could also suggest the idea of trying to hold on to someone who is slipping away. Or, it could be to do to with American football (one of the main characters is a footballer.) Apparently it’s to do with tackling your opponent when they’re not in possession of the ball or something…
The film is based on a well-known memoir written by Timothy Conigrave and published in 1995 (it also became a stage play in 2006). The two main characters are the aforementioned Tim Conigrave (played by Ryan Corr) and John Caleo (Craig Stott).
It’s the 1970s and John is in the football team. Conversely, Tim has dreams of becoming an actor. As the film opens, these two men are shown preparing themselves for their two seemingly different pursuits. The way in which Armfield counterpoints these simultaneous preparations, however, emphasises their similarities rather than their differences. There is a slow beauty to the ritualistic preparations for a football game; it is about following a process in order to assume a role, in the same way that an actor would. Either way, Armfield suggests, what is being depicted is a warm-up for a performance. The notion of ‘performance’ is dominant in Holding the Man, particularly when it comes to the performance of genders and sexualities.
What Holding the Man makes clear is that, however open minded we may profess ourselves to be, assumptions are still made. A man will always be asked for the name of his girlfriend and when two men dance together, it is necessary to work out, “Who’s leading?” as if it is only possible to think in a binary way.
Yet the film also concedes that those who are often pre-judged or pigeonholed are as equally capable of doing the same to others. Tim is often depicted as provocatively belligerent, choosing actions only for the reaction they may encourage from others. In one scene in particular, Tim also speaks with prejudice about a straight Catholic wedding with all the associated bells and whistles. In a dignified cameo, Geoffrey Rush plays a drama teacher who makes it clear to Tim that people are more than just their sexuality, and his sexual identity is just another performance.
References to Romeo and Juliet bubble underneath the surface of the whole film. Certainly, both stories pivot around the idea of a forbidden blossoming romance, both are marred by eventual sadness and death. Using such a traditional boy/girl trope as Romeo and Juliet also helps to highlight the sense of comparative ‘difference’ with which same-sex couples are viewed. The use of music throughout isn’t subtle, but was consistently good, whether it was T-Rex, Rufus Wainwright, or even Blue Oyster Cult (who make reference to Romeo and Juliet in their lyrics to ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’.)
Tim’s father, Dick is portrayed by Guy Pearce as closed minded and dismissive of his son’s relationship (jarring for anyone used to watching Pearce in 1994’s Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). Similarly, John’s father, Bob, is depicted every bit as opposed to Tim and John’s relationship. His anger at times is reminiscent of Lord Capulet’s fury with Juliet when she tries to go against his word. As John’s father, Anthony la Paglia is fearsome, but his silent sadness as the film progresses is touching. During one scene in particular when John’s voice is barely a whisper, and his father has become hard of hearing, their communication difficulties become grimly explicit; they can’t cope without an intermediary.
The film contains some moments of borderline rebellious cliché, which combined with the early parts of the story where the actors play their characters much younger and at school, reminded me of Dead Poet’s Society (1989). What is refreshingly different, however, is how there are so many uncomfortable but genuine everyday moments in Holding the Man. This ranges from trying awkwardly to figure out even the basic mechanics of intercourse, to the blind panic and frustration when parents arrive home during the beginnings of some sort of sex act. This also includes masturbating into a wicker basket with only a nodding dog and a jolting snow globe for company.
This is a film which is not afraid to show flesh and intimacy; making much of the skin on skin comfort of physical love. Yet it’s also a film which gives screen time to the strange little minutiae which form a long-lasting romantic relationship. Holding the Man shows us naïve, fumbling 1970s school days and cruelly offsets them with the cold terror so many faced when confronted with the disturbing realities of HIV in the 1980s. Sometimes it’s a comedy, often it’s a tragedy – more so because it’s based in truth.
Holding the man will be released in UK cinemas and available on demand from June 3rd