Within the first five minutes allusions have been made to ‘Death in Venice’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ An older, ailing Timothy Conigrave (Ryan Corr) proclaims his imminent demise on the Italian coast, and a younger, healthier Conigrave with ‘70’s schoolboy hair playing Paris grins knowingly at a beleaguered Juliet in a school stage production. Holding the Man makes no secrets of the direction its outcome will take, or of the meaning it wants you to derive from its parallel signifiers. As in Shakespeare, this will be a tragic love story; as in Thomas Mann, its protagonist will meet a desperate and decrepit end in the pursuit of his desires.
While the film is very specifically a discourse on AIDS and homosexual relationships, the impetus of its Shakespearean comparative is to emphasise the interchangeability of emotions experienced by persons in love and tragedy as universal to all orientations.
Its aspirations belie the minimalism of the plot, which is high concept in summary: Timothy and John (Craig Stott), a thespian and a football player, fall in love in high school. They pursue their love against the pressures of society before each contracting AIDS. That this is based on Congrave’s real-life memoir means it would be unfair to overly criticise the narrative; although as a writer and dramatist putting it down on paper it must have occurred to him to view his life by some degree in those terms.
What it lacks in narrative is made up for in character exposition, meaning that its loosely-Romeo-and-Juliet framework is an edifice on which to hang all the minutiae, ups and downs, of a relationship.
This is more than adequate compensation, for the most part, although occasionally one gets the impression that the film as a whole has less substance than it thinks it does.
To put it another way: if the emphasis of the film is the interchangeability of homosexual and heteronormative forms of love, as the Romeo and Juliet parallel strongly implies it is, it becomes a very rudimentary, run-of-the-mill story when stripped of its homosexual subtext. This may be problematic, in as much as it suggests viewing the central relationship as a novelty as a requisite to engaging with the film –which is ironically defeatist, considering what it seems to intend. This is a less apparent flaw when viewed as a discourse on homosexuality, but it is of evident, if inevitable, confusion when taken with an ethos of superseding sexuality, which it cannot, by default of its subject matter.
Regardless, it is probably a minor complaint, because the central relationship is legitimately warm and engaging to watch, ultimately moving in its fatalism, but tempered throughout with a sense of playfulness, good natured humour, a genuine sense of compassion, and authentic portrayals of its characters.
Only the last half hour -the apotheosis of John’s illness- feels unnecessarily protracted, if not appropriately sombre, when compared to the momentum that characterises the rest of the film. It is because Timothy and John never wallow in their infirmity that makes it erroneous when the film veers on just that by lingering so intently on a drawn-out death.
That said, the flaws of the film are mostly more apparent retrospectively than they are while the movie is playing out, and this is a very fine Australian film in spite of all that. It is candid and heartfelt, with great performances all around from a cast that includes appearances by Guy Pearce, Kerry Fox, Geoffrey Rush, Marcus Graham, and Gina Riley. Ultimately, Holding the Man is an empathetic piece of cinema, despite the complications of close scrutiny.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10