Opening your tragic love story with a re-enactment of Romeo and Juliet is a bold move, but it’s the kind of decision that neatly encapsulates the strengths – and weaknesses – of Holding the Man, Neil Armfield and Tommy Murphy’s film adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s memoir. This is a film that unashamedly tilts for the full-bodied romanticism and tragedy of Shakespeare’s iconic love story while centring its voice on the heartfelt honesty of Conigrave’s book, completed only days before his death from complications due to AIDS.
That shouldn’t be construed as a spoiler. While Holding the Man’s joyous, celebratory poster might conceal its true nature as a personal reflection on the devastating toll of the disease, my above paragraph was a little disingenuous: the film doesn’t, in fact, open with a performance of Romeo and Juliet. That comes a little later, when in 1976 a teenage Timothy, convincingly played by Ryan Corr, unconvincingly plays Paris in a rehearsal for his school play; before then, we’re given a brief snippet of 1991, in which a panicked phone call reinforces the tale’s tragic ending. Much like Shakespeare’s introductory soliloquy, the prologue serves to ensure that the ultimate fate of these star-cross’d lovers is never in doubt.
Said lovers are Tim and John Caleo (Craig Stott), the school footy captain, who forge their romance in abandoned corners of the schoolyard and on boys’ camping trips. Despite the homophobia of the era, both latent (petty schoolyard insecurities) and blatant (John’s father – Anthony LaPaglia – threatens to call the police upon discovering the true nature of their ‘friendship’), the love between them is true and enduring. In this era, the film is its most romantic, even to the point of concluding with a heart-warming, rebellious riff on the famous Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. Outside of a textbook anachronism that only a Maths teacher would notice, the period details are precise: scribbles on pencil cases and leg casts accompanied by an era-appropriate soundtrack. The atmosphere is unassuming and warm and innocent (not too innocent, thankfully: for once we have a mainstream gay-themed drama that doesn’t elide the simple fact that gay men – gasp! – have sex with one another).
Snap forward eight-some years to learn that both John and Tim – the former a budding chiropractor, the latter a NIDA graduate putting on a play about AIDS – are HIV-positive. Those school uniforms, that autumnal Australian sunlight are each consumed by darkness. This dramatic pivot is critical to Holding the Man, but it’s also its weakest stretch. We jag back to the early ‘80s – to Tim’s formative years as an activist at a university – and the reason for this slight unevenness becomes clear.
Like most young adults venturing out in the big bad world, Tim assumes a performative personality, presenting himself as an engaged activist – complete with the affectation of an erudite English accent, one of Corr’s many clever choices – but you sense the nervous boy trying desperately to keep things under control. When he asks John if he can sleep with other people – because it’s “normal” now – we understand it’s driven less by his feelings about their relationship, and more by the expectations of who he thinks he should be. That’s reflected in the sections of Tim’s play we see – they’re heartfelt, well-intentioned, but the overreach ultimately rings false.
As a portrait of a young man establishing his identity as an artist and an activist, it’s spot-on; unfortunately, Armfield’s decisions during the second act feel too indebted to similar overreach. For one, the non-linearity of the timeline feels superfluous in a film that otherwise unfolds sequentially. At its best, Holding the Man is a tender tale of an individual relationship, but a handful of the decisions here – like the needle drop of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (complete with “Romeo and Juliet” lyric!) lands just as John and a presumably-HIV-positive Tim rekindle their romance – clumsily strive for universality. Like Conigrave’s play, it feels false.
Thankfully, the tear-jerking third act is much stronger. It’s de rigeur for dramas about terminal illnesses – be they AIDS, or cancer, or whatever else – to assume a disingenuous Vaseline-lensed halo. Beautiful people leaving beautiful corpses. But Holding the Man refuses to flinch from the real ravages of deadly disease, demonstrated most memorably in a chilling tableau of suffering when John’s father visits him in the hospital. The story works because it remembers, once again, that this isn’t a universal tale of the beautiful men (and women) lost to AIDS, but a specific story of these two men: their life, their love, their loss. Whatever the missteps of the middle third, it feels true.
The film’s final line refers to John as an ‘angel’, which suggests its tendency to enshrine John as a saint. Conigrave’s memoir was written in the wake of his husband’s death, and this adaptation is a faithful one. It’s understandable, given the story’s subjective perspective, that John would be presented as without flaws – tolerant, noble, honest, beautiful – but it leaves his character slightly less interesting to those that surround him (and gives Stott little to do beyond assume a near-perpetual beatific smile). It’s hard to disagree too vehemently with these decisions, however. Eulogies inevitably smooth over any undesirable character flaws, and Holding the Man is certainly more than honest in its portrayal of Tim.
Romeo and Juliet is a great love story because it combines the passionate intensity of young love with a sober recognition of young love’s stupidity and its futility in the face of societal structures; when Holding the Man strives for the same – and not the high schooler’s idea of what defines an iconic romance – it, too, is a great love story, and a great Australian film.