Holding The Man
(NZ International Film Festival)
Starring Ryan Corr and Craig Stott
Written by Tommy Murphy and directed by Neil Armfield
Timothy Conigrave wrote the stunning book soon after his lover John Caleo died due to HIV/AIDS in 1992, at the height of the virus's death toll in Australia and New Zealand. Brutally honest, he took his readers through a no-holds-barred exposition of love, gay politics and loss.
Playwright Tommy Murphy crafted a superb play from the material and its Silo Theatre Auckland production in 2009 was a magnificent piece of theatre... in your face and throbbing with youthful passion in the first half, then, after the effects of HIV strike both young men, utterly distressing as it descends towards the no-compromises end.
The movie version, shown in Auckland this afternoon as part of the NZ International Film Festival, is a slightly different beast. Written by Murphy and directed by Neil Armfield, it's partly a lush coming-of-age movie as the pair click at high school and their relationship matures, and part polemic as it somewhat stagily illustrates the constrained world inhabited by 1970s and 80s Melbourne (and, lets face it, any part of Australia or New Zealand) gay men.
Craig Stott and Ryan Corr handle their roles well enough despite being a little old for the film's early years when they are high-school kids. But they settle into their characters and we are gently drawn into their at times tumultuous lives together. The way the couple handles homophobia shifts to the influences on them of HIV-phobia.
The erotisicm is real and steamy, the red hot angst of forbidden love is palpable. The defiance of conservative Catholic family values is laudable. The visual evocation of suburban 1970s and '80s is both sumptuous and spookily familiar.
The supporting roles are generally well-handled, particularly by Kerry Fox, Geoffrey Rush, Camilla Ah Kin and Anthony LaPaglia. But Guy Pierce, bitchily fabulous in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and impressive in many subsequent movies, is woefully miscast as the grey-hair-and-walkshorts-wearing Conigrave senior.
But somewhere between the stage and the screen it seems to have lost its heart. The essential bond between Conigrave and Caleo is not well realised, leaving us merely observing rather than feeling their deep romantic love. And the arrival of HIV into their lives is not well handled; it more or less magically appears in a deus ex machina kind of way.
Holding the Man is good enough as a movie that anyone who hasn't experienced the stage play should definitely see it for its depiction of gay love and loss in the age of AIDS.
But if you've seen a good production of the stage play, with its powerful evocation of the soaring joy of gay love and the plunging despair of death from AIDS then perhaps let that suffice.
- Jay Bennie