Holding the Man (2015)
It is ten years since the release of Brokeback Mountain (2005), now widely acknowledged as a landmark film for the LGBT movement’s long struggle to be represented on the big screen. It was one of many cinematic high-points on the wave of such films that started twenty years earlier. The film industry has changed since then; the genre of ‘queer cinema’ is now almost mainstreamed because the days of depicting all human relationships as heterosexual are gone. There are many more battles to be won, but the film pioneers have done the hard yards. This history is important because any current film that goes over old ground without offering something new risks being outdated upon release.
Respect for queer cinema does not necessarily lead to respect for all films produced under its rubric. Despite direction by the acclaimed Neil Armfield, Holding the Man (2015) is a disappointing film. Based on the 1995 memoir by revered gay rights activist Timothy Conigrave, the film version struggles to avoid soapy melodrama and corny humour. It’s a low budget production about the illicit love that started between two schoolboys in the 1970s and continued for 15 years until the AIDS epidemic took its toll. Ryan Corr plays Tim and Craig Stott plays John, actors who in real life are around 30 years of age. Despite their talent, they are glaringly unconvincing as teenagers. The inevitable lack of acting authenticity through poor casting is insurmountable and it undermines the film. While sex scenes play an important expressive role in the portrayal of all relationships regardless of sexuality, beyond a certain point they become gratuitously exhibitionist.
The few genuinely sensitive moments in this film cannot overcome a disjointed narrative arc, unconvincing acting, repetitive sex scenes and an awkward mix of humour and pathos. The desire to pay homage to Conigrave’s book may have constrained the film, but good adaptations are not straitjacketed by the source text. They go beyond it to show visually what was imagined by the author, contemporising it for today’s far more open-minded audiences. I really wanted this film to work, but for me it just didn’t.
Director: Neil Armfield
Stars: Ryan Corr, Craig Stott
I disagree with much of your reflections about Holding the Man, none more so than your central premise that the genre of ‘queer cinema’ is now almost mainstreamed and the days of depicting all human relationships as heterosexual are gone. As a gay man I don’t turn on mainstream cinema or television and see gay or queer characters reflected back to me very often, yes there are more than in 1995, but how many more? It’s not unusual for a major Netflix drama to have no gay characters at all, and even when gay characters are written into a plot, the protagonist is still almost always white, and heterosexual. The fact that people ‘think’ the battle for equality has been waged and won is sheer complacency. Australia is one of the last developed countries in the world, not to not allow gay couples to marry. Tell a queer person wanting to marry the love of their life that the battle for equality is won and they will surely argue it is not. You say that Neil Armfield and Tommy Murphy ‘failed’ to take an old text and find new meaning, but you may have missed the not-so-subtle references to marriage equality, in fact I believe a direct quote from the book, adapted for the film is about the desire for Tim and John to get married. In 1985, at the height of the AIDS epidemic the Republican Christian Right told gays dying of HIV that the pain and suffering they were experiencing on earth, would be nothing compared to the pain and suffering they would experience in hell. They essentially danced on their graves. Greedy relatives swooped in and commandeered dying AIDS victims property, disinherited and in many cases barred their lovers from funerals. So the underlying message within the film, which was not lost on many critics of this film, about the right to marry whomever you choose, wasn’t lost on me. In fact the most powerful scene for me was when John’s father is trying to tally up John and Tim’s possessions, a humiliation spared from married couples. In terms of the suspension of disbelief that Ryan was a teenager, and other elements such as casting, the ‘boring’ sex scenes (I have never seen a simulated school boy sex-scene in authentic Xavier uniform in my life! And it was so totally not boring for me!!) and criticism like authenticity, is a wholly personal opinion that cannot be argued by me or anyone else… If it didn’t do it for you, it didn’t do it for you… I would say though that the restraint of the film, in not throwing the decades, especially the 80’s, in your face, which is such a bad crutch so many directors rely on, was a total joy. Yes the film was made on a low-budget, but for me it was a triumph that anyone could make a credible period drama for under 12 million dollars. And to see gay audiences, who weren’t even born in the 80’s, let alone live through a crises like the magnitude of HIV / AIDS have an appreciation for this film was heart-warming for me… 5 stars!
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Thank you Nick for your thoroughly engaging and eloquent commentary, much of which I accept while some points do not sit well with me. Firstly, I stand by my use of the term mainstreamed because LGBT-themed films no longer are defined by the presence of such themes. When both younger and older (traditional) demographic audiences comment on a film like Holding the Man, it is no longer remarkable that it is about gay people. Its the story and its cinematic portrayal that matters. Secondly, I respectfully suggest that you are bringing to this film debates that are highly topical today but not integral to the film’s historical context (other than by extrapolation). We all know the battle is not over, and yes, Australia is woeful in its reluctance to embrance marriage equality. But there are many social fractures along gender, class and racial and other lines. It could be argued that we are now no more ignorant about marriage equality than so many other areas where we as a nation remain unsophisticated in embracing differences. Thirdly, (if you are still with me), my critique of the film rests entirely on its production. Casting Corr and Stott in roles they physically could not carry results in a parody of acting, and once authenticity of portrayal is lost it cannot be reclaimed. Narrative disjunctures and the quantum/style of sex scenes are matters of opinion and I wouldnt make too much of them, but acting is critical and when its unconvincing then so is the film.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here Nick.
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