Timothy Conigrave finished his 1994 memoir Holding the Man shortly before succumbing to AIDS. A decade later the adaptation by Tommy Murphy for Sydney’s Griffin Theatre became one of the most successful Australian plays ever. Murphy has also written the screenplay for director Neil Armfield, and together they’ve turned in a top-class tearjerker about gay love that has especial urgency at a time when local politicians try to hold back reforms in defiance of public opinion.
Conigrave (Ryan Corr) is a student at a Jesuit School in Melbourne in 1976 when he falls for the captain of the AFL team, John Caleo (Craig Stott). Their friendship is welcomed by Caleo’s religious father (Anthony LaPaglia) until the two are unmasked as lovers. Time jumps take us through to succeeding years: their university days and queer activism; Conigrave’s time at NIDA chasing the dream to become an actor (Geoffrey Rush cameos as a demanding tutor); the temptations of the burgeoning Sydney gay scene; and the awful toll of AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s.
The movie retains Conigrave’s ear for humorous ’70s slang (“You guys are off,” a schoolmate complains to them) and the performances are all splendid. Guy Pearce and Kerry Fox are effective as Conigrave’s tolerant parents, while Corr (Wolf Creek 2) and Stott are touching as the couple whose bond remains steady to the end. Tears of frustration are so often the only kind Australian big-screen dramas provoke: by contrast, here’s a true story, honestly told, that will see audiences genuinely moved.