Holding the Man full movie review - John was beside you.
I feel this review inadequately describes how good this film is. I gave it my best shot. Here goes...
There have been films like this one before but this one is different. It's based on a book written in 1994 by the main character, Timothy Conigrave. Tommy Murphy has adapted that biography into a brilliant screenplay and director Neil Armfield has turned that screenplay into a brilliant film. "Holding the Man" covers the life and romance of two young men who meet in high school in Melbourne, Australia. It opens, however, in Italy with a frantic phone call back to the Australia by Tim, wonderfully played by Ryan Corr. He needs to know, "where John was at the dinner party"; and he needs to know it now. That first impression of frenzy creates an undercurrent of urgency that will inform this beautiful story until the end; there just isn't enough time, there is never enough time, time is short, and life is shorter than time. Craig Stott plays the love of Tim's life, John Caleo, winner of the "Best and Fairest Medal" in high school. His performance, and that of Corr's, is mesmerizing. This is Tim and John's story, yes, but you will also know about the struggles of their parents, siblings, and friends. The edges of this story are rounded out by no less than Anthony LaPaglia, Guy Pierce, Kerry Fox, and Camilla Ah Kim, playing their parents. And Geoffry Rush in a brief, but impressionable, role as Tim's acting coach. They all convey an acute understanding of these peripheral roles and I couldn't help but feel that they saw a project of substance and just wanted to see it succeed. It does.
Told in a non-linear narrative where the story jumps forward and backward in time, "Holding the Man" is a simple story of love that is complicated by society, family, and eventually consumed by the vortex that was, and is, the AIDS epidemic. What sets this film apart from others of its genre, no disrespect to any of them, is how personal and honest it is. Previous films have dealt with the AIDS epidemic; explaining it, apologizing for it, not apologizing for it, defending a community, lashing out righteously against an impotent, or worse, a passively complicit, government, and this one does too. But it does it in a way that is deeply, deeply, personal. Personal and intimate to a degree that I think is new.
Tim and John meet and fall in love in high school at the end of the 70's. After some early years of stumbling around they come back together, forever. These characters were not perfect. Their story is not perfect. But it is compelling and, seemingly, honest. The author and main character, Tim, doesn't shy away from his own shortcomings and mistakes. He actually seems to enjoy picking himself apart and much of it is quite funny. Conversely, I've heard it suggested that Tim's memory of John is idealized. That's possible. My tendency though is to trust someone as apparently introspective as Tim Conigrave. His aversion to self flattery gives weight to his perception of others. And just as an overall impression, his story of their relationship seems balanced and real.
What came across for me the most was how genuine this story felt. Their relationship and their love for one another was at complete odds with their entire world; their community, their school, their families, friends (mostly), even their government, and yet they listened to their hearts and not the noise around them. They forged some kind of a life together with no blue print, no map, and no help, and it worked. This was in 1977...
Ryan Corr and Craig Stott bring an honesty and realness to Tim and John's story that is actually, and quite literally, overwhelming. We've never seen these two characters, under any name, on screen before. Part of that is the screenplay which is not afraid of anything except dis-ingenuousness. Part of it is Corr and Stott's fearless approach to who these boys, and later men, were and their ability as actors to make them real. The pop music choices were an effective time machine transporting the viewer back and forth through the different parts of the story. You will never hear Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" again without the sense of foreboding that ushered in the 80's for Tim and John. Not even my type of music but it's perfect, and perfectly placed, in their story.
For all of its weightiness there are moments where this film will make you laugh out loud. There's even some surprising gallows humor from John's mother as she waits by his hospital bedside. That moment will jerk you away from where you think you're going, and then go there anyway dragging you into a pit of despair and sadness with no apparent floor to stop the descent. The jagged chronology of the story creates a contrast for the dramatically different periods of their relationship. Innocent times are that much sweeter when preceded by later unpleasantness. You will view moments in Tim and John lives that will produce consequences they couldn't possibly have imagined. It is brilliant story telling and develops a depth and breadth to this film that was surely there in real life.
Nothing in this review will diminish your viewing experience of this film. The plot points of Tim and John's story are not surprising. It's not what happens to them, it's how we're shown what happens. The emotional impact, because of these amazing actors, the screenplay, and directing, renders a familiar story new. It is raw. And it is real.
If you were dying, and you knew it, what would you say? If you could write it down, how would it read? If you want to know what Tim Conigrave would have written about John Caleo, watch "Holding the Man". It's beautiful.