Director Neil Armfield on Holding the Man and why it’s important

Note: spoilers

“There was a time, it seemed not so long ago, when your friends at the ages of 30 and 40 were dying, people were going to funerals week after week. It’s really important to remember that and how we are formed by our memories of that.”

Neil Armfield (Candy), director of Holding the Man addressed a post-screening Q/A of his already highly-acclaimed Australian drama at the Hayden Orpheum in Cremorne, hosted by Margaret Pomeranz. The film, as well as its director, were met with exuberant and heartfelt applause.

“Tim Conigrave could have died unremembered having lived this life, he lost his lover and his history at that moment… There were memorials but it was Tim’s act of sitting down and writing his relationship with John Caleo that became a public memorial, which became a film,” said Armfield.

“Tim had the courage to do it and kept himself alive… one year later that book won a UN Human Rights Award, it has never been out of print, it has served for 20 years as a life handbook for kids coming out as gay… the film is taking up that impulse and spreading it further and that’s why it’s important.”

Based on the popular book later adapted into a stage-play, Holding the Man is the very touching real-life story of high-school lovers Tim (Ryan Corr) and John (Craig Stott), growing into adulthood together amid severe hatred and discrimination towards Australia’s gay community. Tragically contracting AIDS in their later years, Holding the Man is both the story of Tim and John’s relationship and struggle as well as that of their families, including their fathers (Guy Pearce and Anthony LaPaglia) with their partnership and growing closeness over many years.

“It’s a huge responsibility doing a story about people who are still alive and carry the memories of their sons, brothers, uncles… the Conigraves hold the rights to the book and they were very supportive,” said Armfield, explaining the story’s ongoing significance and relevance, especially at the time of a heightened public debate within Australia regarding marriage equality.

“The western world has lurched enormously in a liberal progressive direction over many years… with same-sex marriage being so overwhelmingly supported as it seems,” said Armfield.

“The film does in its earliest moments have Tim saying in jest to John through the fly screen will you marry me. At the end he is referred to by a Catholic Priest as one of two friends at a funeral. Tim’s reply was I was his husband, we were together for 15 years. That plays directly into the marriage debate but it wasn’t intended that way, it was just the way these men were living.”

With both male leads delivering very well-defined, immediately empathetic and captivating performances, Corr’s portrayal in particular is frequently as light-hearted and endearing as it is tragically moving. LaPaglia’s performance is spot on as the John’s disapproving and harshly obstinate father Bob, his scenes with Stott as well as the infrequent sequences involving all three lead actors among the best in the film. One of Holding the Man’s penultimate scenes, taking place in a hospital, is one of its most piercingly memorable, treading visual and dramatic territory which fairly few films have the guts to explore.

“Anthony (Lapaglia) was there… right through the shoot,” explained Armfield. “It became clear through the edit that the whole film was a bit of a love triangle between Bob, Tim and John; they were competing for his love, and love means different things to different people.”

With a very visceral chemistry between the two young male actors forming the emotional backbone for a very affecting film, Armfield explains how Stott’s original screen test was originally dismissed very early in the process, and almost lead to the leads not being cast at all.

“This is a crucial test for any director as you can so easily let people slip through your fingers… I saw it again and realised how good it was, I got him in the next day… we had him test with Ryan a few weeks later… and it was clear they had this extraordinary chemistry between them.”

“Clearly there was something that held them together, all you do when trying to create performances is to create a space… you create a safe place in the rehearsal room… you try and create a space in which people feel free.”

A timely, heartfelt and frequently light-hearted biopic, Holding the Man is in cinemas now.