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Former Xavier students' love transcends AIDS horror

  • 20 August 2015

Holding the Man (MA). Director: Neil Armfield. Starring: Ryan Corr, Craig Stott, Anthony LaPaglia, Guy Pearce, Kerry Fox. 128 minutes

Timothy Conigrave's memoir Holding the Man is a classic of contemporary Australian queer literature. Originally published in 1995 a few months after Conigrave's death from AIDS, it is an account of his relationship with high school football star John Caleo, whom he met in 1976 when they were both students at the Melbourne Jesuit private boys school Xavier College. Conigrave and Caleo were together for 15 years until Caleo's death (also from AIDS) in 1992. In 2006 Conigrave's memoir was adapted for the stage by playwright Tommy Murphy, who also wrote the screenplay for this new film adaptation.

The film, directed by Neil Armfield, is a deeply affecting, if patchy, take on this powerful story. Armfield is best known as the director of Candy, the devastating 2006 film about a young man and woman on a downward spiral of heroin addiction, written by Luke Davies. Holding the Man is less bleak than that previous tale of doomed lovers, but is equally as poignant, and as bold and authentic in delving into the practical and human realities of its characters. It is helped by a strong cast, especially Corr, whose portrayal of the flamboyant and passionate Conigrave carries the film.

The bulk of the film takes place before and during the 1980s, and builds towards the height of hysteria about AIDS and the associated marginalisation of gay men. Against this backdrop, the school and its Jesuit overseers come off favourably as relatively progressive and inclusive. After Tim and John are caught exchanging love notes in class, their principal protects their interests by shielding them from exposure. The boys' parents are less tolerant, though with the exception of John's stoically conservative father (LaPaglia) all eventually decide that love and acceptance trump ignorance and intolerance.

Holding the Man is nothing if not bold. It portrays Tim and John's relationship with admirable frankness, in both its emotional and sexual dimensions. Neither does it flinch at the body-horror wrought by AIDS. In one incredibly touching but confronting scene, Tim makes love to John while John is terribly sick, his pale skin pocked by lesions, an oxygen tube trailing from his gaunt face. The physical tenderness Tim continues to display, unmitigated by any sense of revulsion at his lover's bodily degradation during the latter stages of his illness, dignifies John, and