Monday, 24 August 2015

Film Review: Holding the Man

You’ve gotta admit, Neil Armfield’s Holding the Man has impeccable timing; arriving in cinemas amidst a nationwide tug-of-war on gay marriage, this delicate drama dispenses with politics and instead focuses in on a single tear-jerking love story that spans 15 years. 

Adapted from a memoir of the same name, Holding the Man is the story of two Australian teens, Timothy Conigrave (Ryan Corr) and John Caleo (Craig Stott), who form a relationship during their formative years at a Melbourne all-boys school.

Armfield follows their transition from gooey-eyed teens to adventurous college youths and, tragically, embattled AIDS sufferers. Though not told in chronological order, Tommy Murphy’s screenplay remains delightfully straightforward. Throughout the 128 minute runtime, John and Timothy’s relationship offers us a window into a time when homosexuality in Australia was illegal, and the couple fall victim to all-manner of prejudice and discrimination at school, university and at home.

Less explosive and more contemplative, it’s often the absence of earth-shattering emotion that makes the performances, both lead and supporting, so effective. Take Anthony LaPaglia’s shell-shocked father as an example, or Corr and Stott’s inability to speak after learning they are HIV positive. The heartrending final scene that the couple share is beautifully framed, and will have you reaching for the Kleenex once again.

Not everyone in the star-studded cast gets to spread their wings; Sarah Snook feels a little underutilised as Timothy’s drama class colleague, and you get the sense that a lot of her role was cut to strengthen the film’s central narrative. The same can be said for Guy Pearce, whose fleeting appearance feels distractingly slight and whose wig is distractingly awful. That being said, one cameo does leave a lasting impression; Australia’s favourite overseas export, Geoffrey Rush, crops up briefly as a sassy drama teacher complete with razor sharp wit and some killer put-downs.

Some of the dialogue is a bit contrived, especially when the narrative skips ahead a few years and everything is laid out for the audience through clunky and awkward exposition. Armfield doesn’t pull any punches in the bedroom so to speak, and this lack of subtlety felt a little ill fitting when contrasted with the sweet, more romantic first half. The film was strongest when Corr and Stott were given space to emote and really dig into the rich emotional material underlining Murphy’s screenplay.

Josephine Ford’s design and Alice Babidge’s costumes give the period setting a gentle rose-tinted glow that doesn’t drown out the rest of the film; older audiences will no doubt get a kick from seeing a classroom setting devoid of iPads and Angry Birds.

Holding the Man is like The Fault in Our Stars for grown-ups; tender, raw and heartbreaking, this exceptional Aussie film outdoes Pride, a 2014 British film that follows a similar story, thanks to its capable cast, sensitive screenplay and tightly-woven central narrative.

The Verdict: 7/10

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of gay rights, this film is essential viewing – although I don’t expect it will find its way into the DVD player at the next Abbott family movie night. Just don’t forget to pack the tissues – you’ll need them.

Holding the Man opens in cinemas across Australia on Thursday August 27th. This review was originally published over at Hooked on Film, a Perth based website where you can find even more new release movie reviews, features, interviews and insight. Click here to check it out. 

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