Based on Tim Coniway’s 1993 memoir Holding the Man, this long-awaited Australian romantic drama doesn’t disappoint, and is in fact better than anyone could reasonably expect. In 1976, schoolboys Tim (Ryan Corr) and John (Craig Stott) discover a mutual attraction, and in no time they become a full-blown couple. Cut to the 1980s and, in the height of the AIDS crisis, the two – still a couple – go in for a test, just to play it safe. With tragic unfairness, it turns out that, during the brief time the two were separated, Tim contracted AIDS and went on to infect John when they got back together.
With a love story bold, tender, sexy, and ultimately tragic, this vital contribution to Australian queer cinema delivers on just about every possible level, but the most praise must go to the utterly compelling performances from rising stars Craig Stott and Ryan Corr, as believable as teenagers discovering their sexuality as they are as adult gay men coping with the destructive horror of AIDS. Ryan Corr impressed in Wolf Creek 2¹, delivering a performance much better than one ever expects to see in horror cinema, and can now be destined for nothing other than great things, like the Australians who went before him: Russel Crowe, Mel Gibson (who is referenced by name twice in the film), or Guy Pearce (who plays Tim’s father). Craig Stott, whose character John is much quieter than Corr’s pushy, political, theatre-kid Tim, has a likewise quieter CV, but it’s hard to say who’s better between them, as they deliver one of the most authentic pieces of screen chemistry ever seen. The supporting performances are no slouch either, with Sarah Snook as a sympathetic friend, Anthony LaPaglia as John’s homophobic father, the aforementioned Pearce as Tim’s more understanding father, and Geoffrey Rush in a great “bit” as a drama teacher growing irritated with Tim’s prima donna tendencies.
This is a picture that isn’t afraid to have fun, you see, despite the horrific disease at its core. Indeed, the diagnosis doesn’t even come until forty minutes or so in, by which time we’ve already gotten to like the central couple and to thoroughly enjoy their on-screen antics; after all, they are schoolboys, and antics come naturally to them. You’ll be smiling right from the start, as John laces up his football boots, Tim laces up his Shakespearean tights for Romeo and Juliet, and “Gloria In Excelsis Dio” blasts over the opening credits, a combination of humour and tender eroticism that will be maintained all the way to the final moments. The 1976 scenes so thoroughly epitomise good times that, just like the characters, we are unaware (or have forgotten, if we knew the plot ahead of time) of what is just around the corner, and it hits hard. There has long been a tendency in queer cinema to portray the 1970s, with all of its glam, cocaine, and disco, as the promiscuous peak of gay culture, before the ravages of AIDS. Holding the Man follows that pattern, too but, like in all other respects, it has no problem making it seem something fresh and intelligent. The narrative jumps back and forth between the 70s, 80s, and 90s with ease, winding up as one of the few anachronic-order pictures to fully justify its use as a narrative device.
I’ve often said that you rarely see a bad picture come out of Australia. It’s also worth noting that you rarely see one this excellent, either.
Holding the Man is one of Rumsey’s picks of the best films of the year. Check back at the end of the year for our top ten list!