Sydney Film Festival Reviewed

We reviewed some of the most buzzed films at this year's festival, including 'Dope', 'Ruben Guthrie', 'Gayby Baby' and 'Holding The Man'. Many were excellent. Some were not.

The Film That Will Break Your Heart Into A Million Pieces:


Holding The Man, dir. Neil Armfield

Starring: Ryan Corr, Craig Stott, Sarah Snook

Reviewed by: Steph Harmon

In 1995, a few months after the death of actor and activist Timothy Conigrave, his memoir was published: Holding The Man. The book chronicles Tim’s 15-year love affair with John Caleo, who he met as a teen in 1976 at their private boys’ high school in Melbourne (John was captain of the football team). In 1985, after ten years of personal and public battles with homophobia, the couple finally moved into a Sydney apartment together; that same year, they were both diagnosed with AIDS.

The book holds a seminal place in the canon of queer literature, and ten years after it was published a stage adaptation — written by Tommy Murphy, and directed by David Berthold — debuted to an acclaimed and sold-out run at Griffen Theatre, before travelling the world. Another decade has passed since then, and while much has changed in the politics around gay rights and AIDS, much has stayed the same. It’s in this context — as HIV exposure in Australia suffers a resurgence, and the Australian government continues to drag its feet on marriage equality — that Murphy and Neil Armfield’s astounding film adaptation is released. And judging by the communal sobs that backgrounded the film’s premiere at Sydney Film Festival’s closing night, the story resonates as strongly as ever.

I knew nothing about Timothy Conigrave, John Caleo or the history of this text going into the film’s premiere at SFF’s closing night. I’m also a straight woman who was born before the ’80s HIV/AIDS epidemic could have much impact on my identity. According to those who lived with this book, Ryan Corr and Craig Stott’s ageless portrayals were astonishingly true to the page; but even without that context, the honest and fierce love between their characters — supported by a masterful screenplay by Tommy Murphy, which succeeds where so many clunky stage-to-screen adaptations fail — hit home, hard.

Most powerful, for me, are the risks Armfield takes. Lingering camerawork on sex scenes so erotic, so real and sometimes so, so sad; a wide shot of a hospital bed brutally held for almost too long, as loved ones quietly wait for the loud and ugly rasps of dying to slowly evaporate to nothingness. (Anyone who has sat by a deathbed will find this scene confronting, but also, hopefully, beautiful; I’ve never seen the act of watching someone die portrayed so truthfully.) This film is a masterpiece of performance, writing and direction, and I haven’t been able to shake it for a week.

For fans of: Love stories; queer rights; sobbing with reckless abandon

Opening in Australia: August 27

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