Former Xavier students' love transcends AIDS horror


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 underlines the authenticity of their love.

Despite its considerable strengths, the film is somewhat patchy overall. Armfield doesn't quite nail the tone of the piece, at times staggering back and forth between slapstick comedy and soapie solemnity, which contributes to the sense of scrappiness surrounding the film's disjointed time sequences. In particular the early scenes where the boys are at school do not quite come off, not least because Corr and Stott (who plays John) simply do not pass as teenagers — boofy wigs and blazers notwithstanding. When the film does eventually find its feet though, it packs a hell of an emotional punch.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Holding the Man, Ryan Corr, Craig Stott, Timothy Conigrave, John Caleo, Anthony LaPaglia



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Existing comments

I won’t be watching this movie, so please advise: How did John get AIDS in the first place? Is the movie frank about this? Was John a hapless haemophiliac, or, notwithstanding the vaunted “authenticity” of his love that it seems we’re supposed to applaud, had he had been “making love” to many others on the side? Or is this all just swept under the carpet – that, of course, much male gay pairing off goes along with rampant, highly self-destructive and reckless promiscuity of one or both partners? One more question: why the bifurcation between “love and acceptance” and “intolerance and ignorance”? Isn’t it just remotely possible that a “stoically conservative” father might be demonstrating authentic love for his son by confronting him with the reality that his choices and behaviour were bound to lead to the destruction of both his life and those of others? Doesn’t the fact that both those young men who in real life could today be leading flourishing lives in early middle age are long since dead vindicate this stance, and show that the brand of “love and acceptance” so frequently demonstrated to defend and legitimate gay relationships is nothing a cruel hoax, feeding off its own versions of intolerance and ignorance? I hope the movie was frank about all that, too, but I suspect not: some degrees of frankness are beyond toleration these days. RIP Timothy and John.

HH | 20 August 2015  

Holding the Man came a generation after my Catholic schoolboy days but the cultural paradigm was familiar. Throughout the film the Church struggles with the rich dynamic of human intimacy and young love.Although Tim Kroenet gives the Jesuits a gold star for being "relatively progressive and inclusive" the shine is tarnished at John's funeral the priest who knows that Tim regards John as his husband dismisses their relationship as mere friendship. Catholic schoolboy life in the 60s and 70s was cruel and unwelcoming for those of us attracted to our peers. For the six years of my life in that era at St Joseph's College Geelong I spent much of my break time in the school day with the same group of mates. Of that group three of us were gay but we had neither the language nor community to support each other's journey into sexuality. I am proud that my old school is now a participating member of the Safe School Coalition. I have life membership of the Old Collegians and have been invited back as a Gay man to tell my story of a different era and to encourage inclusion and welcome as school and footy oval values.

Tony Robertson | 20 August 2015  

Feel a little bit sorry about the crassness of some of the comments above eg. "Please advise: How did John get AIDS in the first place? Is the movie frank about this? ....." What is the suggestion here? That Caleo and Conigrave's story should not be told because they both died! [Please note it is inaccurate to say that they "died from AIDS" What's with the prurience about whether or not they had relationships 'on the side'? If that's a test then probably 75%++ of the population of Australia stands condemned. The book, I would suggest , is already an Australian Classic. The first time I read it I was in tears by the end. My impression is that the play had the same effect on people, and that the movie is likely to take the world by storm. Not because it is about confronting homophobia, which it is; nor because it is about promoting marriage equality (which it says nothing about). But because it is about allowing people to have the freedom to love, and to recognise that love and tragedy will go side by side. Surely that's a profoundly Christian message. Replying & writing as a Christian! Stephen Parish Priest, St Mary Magdalene's Anglican Church, Adelaide

Stephen Clark | 20 August 2015  

HH, if you're determined not to see the movie, which I haven't yet seen, please read the book, which I have read. That book gives insights into the struggles of a gay young man confronting his God-given sexuality in a discriminatory world. I will go to see the movie to reinforce the learnings from the book.

Peter Johnstone | 20 August 2015  

By the late 1970s the Jesuits of Xavier would have been well aware of the change in social mores in society. In the 1960s I am unsure whether they would have been as tolerant of same sex attraction among their students. Many people would find both the book and the film confronting. I suspect that includes many who neither read nor saw it. I am unsurprised. To each his or her own.

Edward Fido | 20 August 2015  

Mercy triumphs over judgment.

AO | 20 August 2015  

I've noticed that the moderation of comments in ES is generally rather conservative and never allows comments which could be defamatory without evidence, especially in the case of Conigrave and Caleo who are not even alive to defend themselves against the suggestion in the first comment that John lived a life a promiscuity. Can someone please explain to me how this comment could possibly be justified and fair? It often only takes ONE sexual encounter with a HIV positive person for someone to be infected. And in the 80s when these young men were infected, there was little know about the virus and it's quite likely they were unaware of exactly what HIV was and how lethal it was until it was already too late.

MIKA | 21 August 2015  

Mika, how is it defamatory to surmise that a gay person contracting HIV/AIDS might have done so through multiple sexual encounters with different partners? The advice of health authorities the world over for gays to use condoms in sex is predicated on propensity of gays to engage in this kind of lifestyle. It would make no sense if gay men were predominantly non-promiscuous. So is that advice defamatory too? And, so what if it’s known that John’s infection occurred after only one solitary extra-relationship encounter, corroborating your correct observation about the ease of HIV transmission? It only reinforces my point: certain styles of “love making” should be avoided because, inter alia, they are EXTREMELY dangerous, health-wise. A movie lauded for being “frank” which celebrates these forms of love but fails to intentionally convey their disastrous consequences is, in fact, far from frank. Just P.C., and dangerously so.

HH | 21 August 2015  

I have read the book just a few years ago and I can vividly remember the feelings that it stirred within me. It brought me to tears and I can't wait to see the movie.

Mary | 21 August 2015  

"What is the suggestion here? That Caleo and Conigrave's story should not be told because they both died!" Fr Stephen, quite the opposite: their story should be frankly told precisely because they died, and why.

HH | 21 August 2015  

To HH. Romeo and Juliet. Was their love love or death in disguise? Is love ending in suicide to be classified as love? Please answer. The families are reconciled by their children's deaths and agree to end their violent feud.The play ends with the elegy : For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

AO | 21 August 2015  

Unconvincing response, HH. You've sidestepped the very valid question raised by Stephen - your assertion of promiscuity - and trotted out more of what seems to be your obsession with male-male (you never seem to fussed about the female-female version) homosexuality.

Ginger Meggs | 21 August 2015  

HH, I am reluctant to be drawn into your gratuitous assumption this is a simple tale of caution against promiscuity - because this is a memoir about a committed relationship between two men. I haven't read the book and don't know the full story either, but I don't feel the need to make any judgment until I hear the whole story. I wasn't around during the '60s, but you may be aware of something referred to as the sexual revelation. Well, that involved heterosexual people as well, so health authorities tell everyone to use condoms. I'm sure you'll probably have some statistic from some study to prove that gay people are more promiscous that heterosexuals in general, but you could understand why, given that up until recently, the idea of a socially accepted monogomous relationship was simply beyond their reach. But the so-called promiscuous "lifestyle" you refer to is part of youth culture, regardless of orientation. And the despite the challenges facing the institution of marriage , with high levels of divorce and less people choosing to marry at a young age, one group in society - gay people - are fighting against the odds and against the pressure from institutionalized religion to delegitimise them.

MIKA | 22 August 2015  

AO: as an answer both your questions, I can do no better than quote the brilliant literary critic Joseph Pearce, who cuts through all the modern romantic claptrap about R & J to Shakespeare's real intent: "In capturing each other’s hearts, Romeo and Juliet have enslaved each other’s minds and consciences. In Jane Austen’s formulation of the problem, they have exchanged good sense for mere sensibility, forsaking the rational virtue of the former for the irrational fervour of the latter. This is not only foolhardy but deadly, as Juliet intimates when she concludes … : ‘Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.’ If eros (sexual love) is not in harmony with caritas (theologically virtuous love that always seeks the good of the Other before the self) it will prove destructive to those in its grip. This is the overarching moral to which the play points.” Joseph Pearce, “Shakespeare on Love: Seeing the Catholic Presence in ‘Romeo and Juliet’”, 2013, p. 63.

HH | 24 August 2015  

Misquote: "forsaking ... of the former *with* the irrational fervour ..." Apologies.

HH | 24 August 2015  

G.M., I'm mortified that my comments seem to betray a one-sided obsession with male-to-male-homosexuality. Please supply a list of films reviewed by E.S. in which a reviewer, as here, celebrates female homosexual acts as expressions of "authentic love". I'm standing by with pen poised. They must have escaped my notice - me being so obsessed and all.

HH | 24 August 2015  

HH: I : v Sunday evening & late evening Romeo and Juliet meet at the party and fall in love. II : vi Monday afternoon Romeo and Juliet meet at Friar Laurence's cell and get married. V : iii Thursday through Friday late evening through early morning Paris and a servant arrive at Juliet's tomb... an encounter and marriage between 2 children lasting less than 5 whole days. Joseph Pearce, “Shakespeare on Love: Seeing the Catholic Presence in ‘Romeo and Juliet’”, 2013, p. 63. A little simplistic?

AO | 24 August 2015  

HH: If eros …etc? The only dark destructive deeds, lack of charity, were those of violence and hatred between the Montague and the Capulets displayed in broad day light. Romeo asks Friar Lawrence to marry Juliet and him even though their families are enemies. The Friar is confused at first and against the idea. He asks Romeo what happened to his professed love for Rosaline. Romeo finally convinces the Friar to agree to wed the two young lovers in the hopes that their love for each other, and their marriage, would end the hatred the two families feel toward each other. Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 3, Friar Lawrence to Romeo. 'll thy assistant be; For this alliance may so happy prove To turn your households’ rancour to pure love."

AO | 25 August 2015  

The formation of a natural pearl begins when a foreign substance slips into the oyster between the mantle and the shell, which irritates the mantle. It's kind of like the oyster getting a splinter. The oyster's natural reaction is to cover up that irritant to protect itself. The man­tle covers the irritant with layers of the same nacre substance that is used to create the shell. This eventually forms a pearl

AO | 25 August 2015  

Simplistic? Read Pearce's book, AO. The very fact that the events are so rapid, as you note, is due to the reckless lust of Romeo for Juliet, and her imprudent accession to his seduction (though she can hardly be blamed for much, given she's not even 14 years old). It's crucially abetted by Friar Lawrence, who acts completely contrary to his own wise counsel ("Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast.") on the mistaken moral ground that the end justifies the means, so that the marriage he thinks in itself imprudent (especially if carried out in haste) might be justified if it bring about peace between the warring families. In the end, peace is indeed effected by the marriage, but in a tragic way not foreseen by Friar Lawrence, and yet one which he rightly, and to his credit, assumes responsibility for bringing about. But, after all, he is only an abettor; the source of the tragedy is the unchaste "love" of Romeo and Juliet, chiefly instigated by the unchivalrous, selfish, unmanly Romeo. Would that "Holding The Man" offer such wise, life-saving lessons for all of us.

HH | 25 August 2015  

HH: *Juliet says that she will kill herself rather than marry Paris : Lady Capulet questions Juliet regarding her feelings about marriage and then informs Juliet of Paris' proposal. When her mother mentions that Paris will attend the feast that evening, Juliet reacts with dutiful reserve II : ii Sunday late evening The famous balcony scene: Romeo and Juliet decide that they will get married the next morning. I : ii Sunday afternoon Lord Capulet and Paris talk about arranging a marriage to Juliet...III : i Monday late evening Lord Capulet decides that Juliet shall marry Paris on Thursday. IV : i Tuesday late morning or afternoon. *Juliet says that she will kill herself rather than marry Paris, and the Friar comes up with the plan for her to take the drug which will make her appear dead for 42 hours, so that the wedding will be called off and Romeo can come and take her to Mantua.

AO | 25 August 2015  

I am female, not gay and am of the Catholic tradition. Timothy's book and now the film moved me deeply. To me, this is a piercing tale of an intimacy between two youths and ending in their deaths as young men -men of my generation, from my city and my spiritual tradition. Tim's voice resonates and I treasure their story...

catherine | 29 August 2015  

Yes, HH, I agree. We need more films about lesbians. In fact, I think we need more lesbians (out and visible) in our society.

AURELIUS | 24 September 2015  

Hi I just want to say that when I came out on the scean at the age of 15 I whent to a gay group called 'Young Gays ' and Tim was the organiser of the group and John was there we became friends and they both introduced me to the Gay bars and I use to stay at their place in Carlton and we use to hang out with Peter Craig and Ian. Tim and John were beautiful people and they helped me and John was an amazing person... I fell for him as those eyelashes were hypnotic and amazing :-) They were truly both gentleman and really took me under their wing. Anyway thank you for letting me share this as I lost touch and never saw them and never got the chance to say thank you.....

Christian | 23 January 2016  

I just watched this movie and am now looking for the book. I cried my eyes out. I am a heterosexual Canadian who believes and respects all people for who they are . The saddest piece for me was the conflict between Tim, John, and Johns father.

Kerri | 13 August 2016  

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