Australia’s most famous gay memoir becomes a regrettably dissatisfying drama in Neil Armfield’s flat “Holding the Man.” Tim Conigrave’s bestselling 1995 autobiography was turned into a well-received play in 2006 by Tommy Murphy, but the self-same Murphy’s screen adaptation relies on predisposed audiences whose emotional investment will paper over the shallow characterizations. Meant as a passionate chronicle of a great love, and a sobering reminder of the stigma of AIDS, the pic blandly conjures these sentiments and stands as one of the more wrong-footed evocations of coming out in the 1970s and ’80s. Home play later this month will be strong, while a moderate international rollout, in the “Pride” vein, isn’t impossible.
Conigrave penned his autobiography (still in print with Penguin) while dying of HIV-related illnesses three years after the death of John Caleo, his lover of 15 years. Murphy’s script bookends the story with scenes of Conigrave writing on the Italian island of Lipari, later shifting time in a not-always-satisfying manner. While wisely choosing not to fetishize period aesthetics, Armfield and Murphy get the sensibility of the era wrong; they seem to be so intent on celebrating a gay love story that they only weakly conjure the potent homophobia of the time, when the fear of discovery, especially for teenage boys, was never far from the surface.
At 16, Tim (Ryan Corr) has the hots for soccer star/classmate John (Craig Stott). It’s 1976 in Melbourne, not exactly the most open of periods, yet their furtive affair is only fitfully hidden from classmates. When John’s father, Bob (Anthony LaPaglia), reads a love letter Tim sends his son, he forbids their friendship, but the teens brook no opposition and refuse to be separated. Tim’s parents, Mary Gert (Kerry Fox) and Dick (Guy Pearce), as well as John’s mother, Lois (Camilla Ah Kin), prefer not to address such things openly, but Bob’s discomfort remains a palpable obstacle.
Like the book, the film charts the couple’s ups and downs. Tim moves to Sydney to attend drama school (Geoffrey Rush briefly appears as his acting teacher), while John studies to be a chiropractor. Though they’re still a couple, Tim’s enjoying the hedonistic gay scene of the early 1980s, which makes John uncomfortable. They separate, they get back together, and then once they’re happily living together in Sydney, they learn they’re both HIV-positive.
Surprisingly, given Murphy’s background as a playwright, his dialogue is consistently weak: No conversation achieves any depth. Tim’s character is made three-dimensional by his self-described selfish edge, but poor John is little more than a wide-eyed puppy with the mildest personality imaginable; he has no life when he’s not with Tim. We are constantly told of their great love, yet with such unevenly drawn characters, it will be hard for viewers to feel emotionally invested unless they’r already primed by the memoir or play.
As for the pic’s other focus, the stigma of AIDS in the mid-to-late ’80s, “Holding the Man” touches only superficially on the pariah status of those with the disease. Scenes in the hospital between the dying John and the as-yet asymptomatic Tim are the pic’s most touching moments, yet despite the heartfelt approach, they have a generic ring, slotted in exactly where one expects them to be, quickly milking the tears and then moving on.
Part of the problem is the lackluster editing, which provides very little buildup, even when Tim and John are about to get caught “in flagrante.” Helmer Armfield, best known as a theater and opera director, returns to the screen for the first time since 2006’s “Candy,” and the long hiatus is perhaps the reason for the movie’s overall flatness. Superb actors with personality galore, like Fox and Pearce, obviously care deeply about the project, but are offered only small moments; leads Corr and Stott seem vaguely ridiculous as 16-year-olds, their five o’clock shadows conspicuously present while everyone around them has peach fuzz.
Lensing by Germain McMicking (“Partisan”) is straightforward, keen on casting everyone in an appealing light. Songs of the era by artists such as Bronski Beat, Blondie and Bryan Ferry, inserted non-chronologically, do much to color in the era and drive emotions, paired with a new composition by Rufus Wainwright.