Adapting a much-loved text is always a delicate task as the audience can be fiercely protective.
There’s much to be surprised by in Neil Armfield’s long awaited follow-up to his 2006 film Candy, in which Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish experience the many pangs of love and heroin. In Holding the Man, Armfield once again takes an intense love affair as his focus, this time however its arc occurs more gradually and the pain more agonizingly drawn out. Taken from Tim Conigrave’s 1995 autobiography of the same name and published a year after his death, screen writer Tommy Murphy’s script details Conigrave’s story (as played by Ryan Corr) beginning from his time at Xavier College in the 70s pining from the boundary line for the football team captain John Caleo (Craig Stott). Not being familiar with the award-winning memoir, the first surprise was that the romance blossoms without any of the expected backlash from Caleo’s footy playing peers. While there’s a bit of gentle ribbing from knowing classmates and some concern from the college priest (“we’ve seen this sort of thing before”), the pair generally enjoys their discrete courtship unfettered by the usual cinematic platitudes about gay love. The resistance comes by way of their middle class parents (Guy Pearce and a powerful Anthony LaPaglia the fathers), but it falls short of the dramatic kind alluded to in early scenes in which Tim rehearses a school production of Romeo and Juliet. The tragedy in their lives, as for so many gay men in the 1980s, was the impact that HIV/AIDS had on them. Another surprise, given the somber nature of the material, is the amount of humour in Holding the Man. There’s a real sense of warmth and authenticity that Armfield and his talented cast convey that comes from a obvious respect for the film’s source and subject, and in the director’s case, from having lived first hand the era depicted and its troubles. Holding the Man is in cinemas now.