DVD Review - Holding the Man

Timothy Conigrave was an Australian actor and activist who wrote about his personal experience with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980's. He finished his memoir about it just before he died at age 34. His book was published posthumously in 1995. It has since become a popular and well-regarded book in Australia. For that book's 20th anniversary, two movies were released in that country down under in honor of Conigrave. One was a documentary by Nickolas Bird and Eleanor Sharpe. The other was this film, which is an adaptation of Conigrave's memoir, focusing on the 15-year relationship between Conigrave and his de facto husband, as both deal with being infected with HIV and developing AIDS.

Ryan Corr (The Water Diviner and Wolf Creek 2) stars as Timothy Conigrave or just Tim. He's an aspiring actor who comes of age in the late 70's and early 80's. He hopes to be the next Mel Gibson. Given Gibson's recent history in the 2000's, it's a groan-inducing reference, but Gibson was the highest-profile Australian of that decade. This decade, the highest-profile Australian or the one to whom young Australians might look is Chris Hemsworth or Hugh Jackman.

Corr, however, might be a better actor than Hemsworth. Corr's performance did garner him nominations this year from the Australia Film Critics Association and the Australia Film Institute for Best Actor. Corr even beat Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road with the former group. A lot of that acclaim has to come from the first thirty minutes or so when Tim is falling in love with his future husband, John Caleo, played by Craig Stott. The first thirty is not just sweet, very sexy and romantic. It's also powerful and has a lot of great ideas and images.

Everything that follows just isn't as powerful. Because the book was so beloved in Australia and because there hasn't been a movie about the HIV and AIDS epidemic in that country, this film's existence is good in theory. Unfortunately, this film doesn't provide any insight as to the effect of the AIDS epidemic that might make it different from how it was in the United States or at least how it's been portrayed thus far.

Longtime Companion (1989) was the first wide-release in the U.S. on the subject of AIDS. Philadelphia (1993) was an Oscar-winning look at job discrimination and bigotry as a result of AIDS. Angels in America (2003) was a great deconstruction of various sociopolitical issues surrounding the disease. The Normal Heart (2014) was HBO's adaptation of the grassroots fight against the stigma and struggle for government action.

Nothing in this film is different from those titles in terms of the things it conveys about AIDS. A sick person deteriorates and his loved one cares for him with perseverance where each person vasilates back-and-forth between hope and despair, affection and anger. Unlike in the aforementioned films, there's nothing for the characters to fight here, other than the so-called fight against this incurable and at this point absolutely deadly disease. They simply have to suffer through it until the inevitable end.

Anthony LaPaglia (Without a Trace and Frasier) co-stars as Bob Caleo, the father of John who is highly homophobic and thus highly opposed to his son's relationship with Tim. Movies, including the aforementioned, American films about gay men dealing with HIV and AIDS, don't have the kinds of interactions with fathers or parents that this film has. Most gay films dealing with HIV and AIDS have the character disconnected from his family, particularly his parents. The screenplay here by Tommy Murphy doesn't make Bob totally evil though. In fact, it's clear that Bob loves his son. He's a bit more nuanced, which is indicative of the entire movie and all the adult characters, and even most of the non-gay characters.

Guy Pearce (Memento and L.A. Confidential) plays Dick Conigrave, the father of Tim whose role isn't as pronounced here as Bob's. He is less homophobic but caves more to society's homophobia. He's certainly more supportive. It leads to a great moment that is rarely seen. At the wedding of Bob's daughter, Dick dances a slow-dance with his son Tim.

There were a lot of other great moments, especially in the first half. The relationship Tim has with his school friends results in a fun scene of Tim pretending to be pregnant. A kiss between Tim and John with a window screen between them was a great image and metaphor for their relationship. All of which happens in the first half-hour or so and that's it. Once it's established that Tim and John are in love and will be together, things go down hill narrative-wise.

The soundtrack has good choices. Some are on-the-nose like "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult and others are more subtle like "Dreaming" by Blondie. However, good music can't save the latter part of this movie. I'm not sure this was a part of Murphy's script or a choice made by director Neil Armfield and his editor, but the movie's structure consists of jumps forward and backward in time.

Given the memoir was popular in Australia, Conigrave's story might be better known, but by jumping back-and-forth in time, some later dramatic tension is undermined. The movie also makes emotional jumps or leaps of emotional logic that also undermine the movie's overall aim. At one point, the movie hops nearly ten years and we go from Tim and John declaring their love in 1976 to the two learning both are HIV positive in 1985.

It then jumps back to 1979 where we see the two break-up, and I don't get the point of going backwards to show them split when we know they'll get back together by 1985. Going to 1985 before we see the break-up removes the dramatic tension because we know there are no stakes. Their couple-hood or their couple-hood again is inevitable. Therefore, when we regress to 1979 and we see Tim split from John and have a lot of random and meaningless, casual sex with a bunch of different people, it's supposed to underline the fact that Tim contracting HIV was his own fault because he's promiscuous. Is that the takeaway?

It doesn't help that Tim's character by that point is not the most likeable person.  The movie spends the better part of a hour having Tim fall in love and tell his parents he wished they had cancer because they try to prevent him from being with John. Then, all of a sudden, Tim wants an open relationship and after one fight is cheating on John. There's no reconciliation of that. Whatever caused Tim to want an open relationship is magically gone and we're to believe that Tim is just going to be this dedicated person, never wanting to cheat or be with anyone else.

When Tim splits from John and Tim becomes promiscuous, there's no indication of what John was doing. Yes, this movie is based on Conigrave's memoir, so ultimately it's more about Tim than John, but, because the movie loses track of John as an individual, it loses some emotional resonance that one needs by the end. I'm not even sure what John did for work. What was John's job or career? John becomes less a three-dimensional person and more a figure for Tim to mourn and jerk tears from the audience.

Three Stars out of Five
Not Rated but contains language, full-frontal male nudity and gay sex.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 7 mins.

Available on DVD / Blu-ray.
Also on Netflix Watch Instant.


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