Byron Bay’s Palace Cinema was packed to the rafters on Sunday night for a charity preview screening of the film Holding the Man followed by a Q&A with producer Kylie Du Fresne, screenwriter Tommy Murphy and actor Ryan Corr.
Based on the book of the same name, this extraordinary tale of love and death has taken an incredible two decades to make it to the big screen.
I’ve been a keen follower of this story for most of that time, having interviewed the author and lead character, Timothy Connigrave, for a gay magazine not long after he started writing it in the early 1990s.
Such is the captivating power of the resulting book, Tommy Murphy has spent more than 10 years working on first the play and later the movie.
Directed by Neil Armfield, the film is not just a reworking of Murphy’s award-winning play but a new screen adaptation based on Connigrave’s remarkable memoir of his short life – and his one great love: John Caleo, the boy he met at school.
In an early scene, Connigrave is rehearsing for the school play: Romeo and Juliet. The irony is not lost, as the film itself tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers who meet, are torn apart and finally come together again – only to die, one in the other’s arms.
It has all the same elements: passionate love, family disapproval, youthful determination and blind fate.
But this is not Shakespeare’s Verona, rather the Sydney and Melbourne of just 30 years ago, where gay sex was illegal, gay relationships disapproved of and – especially following the onset of HIV/AIDS – many lives and loves ended in tragedy.
Yet as much as the film is unflinching (though never mawkish) it is also laced with Connigrave’s wonderful humour, laconic at first but black at the end.
From the very first scenes, shot in the grounds of Melbourne’s iconic Xavier Grammar School, where the two began their lifelong romance (with John as captain of the school football team and Tim acting in the school play), Connigrave’s wit, self-deprecation and unnerving courage is on display.
Despite all the odds, Tim’s crazy-brave pursuit of the object of his affections is, remarkably, rewarded. And what starts as a schoolboy crush becomes a lifelong devotion.
Studying together at Monash University Tim and John join the gay society and are the centrepiece of a gay kiss-in.
When Tim is kicked out of the Caleo’s house after the family come home to find them together, the two decide to rent digs and finally make a go of it.
But soon Tim gets an offer to study at NIDA and heads off to Sydney, where the hedonistic 80s lifestyle sets his head spinning and his pulse racing.
Eventually John follows. But, not long after they reunite, the pair discover they both have HIV – in those days a death sentence.
As much as the boys’ love is at the centre of this story, never far away are the reactions of schoolmates, friends and, above all, family.
And in this respect, the Connigraves and the Caleos are a study in contrasts.
The lively, fun-loving Connigraves, though at first upset at discovering the relationship, are ultimately accepting of it and embrace John as one of the family.
But the uptight, conservative Caleos, while loving their son, can never find it in themselves to accept or even tolerate his lover.
Two scenes are especially poignant in this regard, and point up why the issue of marriage equality remains such a touchstone to this day.
When John is in hospital for the last time, his father Bob (brilliantly portrayed by Anthony LaPaglia) confronts him and Tim about changing John’s will so ‘the family’ get their share.
He then produces a list of their meagre possessions and gets them to tick off which each of them owns.
Tim’s plea that he will still need the car is written off with ‘I helped pay for that car; it should come back to me’.
Then, as John’s inevitable death approaches, Tim is taken aside by the Catholic priest the family has appointed to conduct the funeral and told their lifelong relationship has been written out – he will be referred to merely as a friend.
How ironic, then, that Tim’s greatest bequest was that of the book itself, which he completed just 10 days before his own death in 1994.
To their great credit, the Connigrave family (and his sister in particular) took it upon themselves to see it published, and have played an integral part in the resulting play and film.
Yet even beyond the grave there is some room for redemption. And its genesis is in the first scene of the film: in the sight of the unmistakeable, towering redbrick buildings of Xavier.
Kylie Du Fresne explained during the Q&A after Sunday’s screening that the school was adamant that permission to film there would be dependent on it receiving support from both families.
So, 24 years after the book’s publication, the Caleo family quietly gave the film their tacit approval.
While the lives of these two young lovers ended so tragically, there is hope that social advancements – not just medical ones – can help to make their story history.
Holding the Man plays at the Palace Cinema, Byron Bay, from Thursday