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Critical Analysis of Holding the Man: An Honest Depiction of Homosexuality

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Director Neil Armfield’s decision to create an on-screen adaptation of Tim Conigrave’s memoir Holding the Man (2015) confronted him with the difficult challenge of realistically representing homosexuality on screen; a notion that Australian filmmakers have often failed to achieve. While Australian cinema has welcomed an array of ‘gay’ films, many have struggled to present gay characters and their sexuality accurately – often tarnishing characters with offensive stereotypes (Dyer,16). However, Holding the Man defies stereotyping through an honest depiction of a homosexual relationship. Spanning over 15-years, Tim Conigrave’s (Ryan Corr) and John Caleo’s (Craig Stott) forbidden romance is passionately portrayed from a blossoming high school romance to love that weathers disapproval, illness and death. Through filmic analysis this essay will explore three distinct ways in which Holding the Man challenges stereotypes by ensuring that three-dimensional characters are represented through a true-to-life depiction of the homosexual experience. In order to achieve this profound character, the essay will firstly discuss how the film offers an honest depiction of sexual desires in a same-sex partnership. Secondly, it will discuss the representation of realistic same-sex partnership and the oppressive factors that are associated. Finally, the harrowing depiction of how main characters Tim and John endure the onset of the HIV/AIDs crisis in Australia will be closely analysed. In the essay, I will work under a cultural and sociological framework and will draw upon opinions of various academics from the field of media and cultural studies, in order to compare and contrast homosexual representations.

Firstly, I will explore the ways in which the film incorporates sex scenes and portrays sexual desires to create a believable representation of the homosexual experience. Eminent Australian writer of “A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Writing in Australia” Michael Hurley, discusses the notion of sexual desire in homosexual relationships in reference to the American film Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). While appreciative of the film, acknowledging its ‘profound representation’ of a homosexual man grieving the loss of love, he finds that the film fails to establish of any sexual desires between the couple. Hurley states ‘I think about how the relationship between these two men is empty of any hint of sexual activity between them, of how they barely touch at all (12)’ and according to Hurley this is a reoccurring issue in popular films. Conversely, Holding the Man cannot be criticised of this. Multiple explicit sex scenes are woven into the plot and presented in varying forms and in different stages of their lives. The sex scenes range from the awkwardness of their first sexual encounter where they are nervous yet excited, to tender and loving and erotic and illicit. The frankness and unapologetic portrayal of their sexual experiences is impactful in demonstrating the profoundness of Tim and John’s characters. This is evident – in perhaps one the most moving and confronting scenes of the film – where the couple make love whilst John is evidently edging closer to his death. The authenticity of the couple’s love is underlines as Tim embraces John’s cachectic body, showing no hint of revulsion despite the advanced state of his lover’s illness. The rawness of the material depicts not only their passion it simultaneously emphasises the notion of sexual desire post diagnosis. Sexual desire post AIDS/HIV diagnosis is a notion that Hurley – lecturer in gender and cultural studies at La Trobe University – believes is often overlooked, even going as far to say that he believes it has never been represented in Australian cinema. Hurley explains it’s important because it demonstrates the strength of a homosexual partnership in particular during the HIV/AIDS crisis (13). With Hurley’s words in mind audiences can appreciate how Tim and John’s relationship – in both in its sexual and emotional dimensions- is portrayed with admirable honesty and highlights that sexual desires in homosexual relations is an important genre to explore insightfully on film.

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It is crucial to society that Australia celebrates films like Holding the Man, as it offers an honest representation of realistic same-sex partnership and the oppressive factors that are associated. In his article, Gays and Film, Dyer discusses the notion of comparing homosexual and heterosexual relations; ‘if you are representing sexual and emotional relationships on screen, it does make a difference whether they are gay or straight. One will not do as a metaphor for the other’ (16). He expounds on this idea by saying that they cannot serve as a metaphor for one another as heterosexual relationships have not been oppressed like homosexual relationships have and continue to be (16). Such oppression is clearly demonstrated in Holding the Man, most evidently through the familial disapproval of John and Tim’s relationship. The film offers audiences an insight into how such lack of support, further emphasising the sense of rejections and isolation that homosexual endure, the film furthermore illustrates a painful picture of the struggles met by families of HIV/AIDS victims. The representation of Bob Caleo, played by Anthony La Paglia, depicts conservative father morally upright to the point of oppressive, similar to many other on screen who follows this typically traditional way of thinking. It is fascinating to see how he embodies the anger, confusion and fear that his son’s sexuality and its consequences causes him; right from the moment he discovers the letter to over a decade later as his son rapidly deteriorates. Sadly, above all his cultural and religious beliefs are revealed as prejudices which prevent him from acknowledging the reality of john and Tim’s relationship. At his son’s funeral, the audience’s see’s the sorrowful pain in Tim’s eyes as Bob refers to him as ‘John’s friend … who provided such support in the final months of his life’. This triggers negative emotional as viewers have witnessed the truth and the realistic portrayal of their relationship they know intensely and faithfulness of Tim and Johns love.

Holding the Man grasps the pain brought upon by HIV in Australian society in 1980s, an era that rarely been depicted in preceding Australian films. The final paragraph will analyse how the film depicts the AIDS crisis through its effect on Tim and his relationship with John, which also assists the representation of a three-dimensional character. HIV/AIDS is implicitly alluded to in Sum of Us (1994) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) -when their mobile home is tagged with a homophobic HIV directed slur. However, Holding the Man is one of the first Australian cinematic examples to provide an accurate and distressing account of the AIDS crisis, enabling audiences to begin to understand what this traumatic experience may have been like. ‘We are lucky, we are the second wave. They are going to cure it.’ A chilling reminder that there still isn’t a cure, although advancement of the disease can be delayed it is very much still a prevalent issue in Australian society. John quietly suffers in his bleak hospital room and glimpses of other gaunt HIV victims serve as a poignant reminder of the sheer size of the Australian impact of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s. Portraying the disease on screen is one of the most effective means drawing attention to AIDS/HIV and its victims and something that is helpful in reducing fear and increasing empathy (Goldman, 1987) It is moments like these in the film that are arguably the most important in creating that non-stereotypical gay character that Dyer desires to see in mainstream cinema. The couple’s love remains unwavered; despite the stark truth that death is imminent, demonstrating that there is more than one facet that depicts the Australian gay experience. Stuart Richard closes his article Holding the Man, that is important to share ‘If ever the devastating effect of AIDS in Australia was going to be told to a mainstream audience, Holding the Man has the potential to be that film’ (The Conversation, 2015).

In conclusion, this essay has examined three ways in which the film has offered an insightful means of realistically portraying homosexuality. It has portrayed three dimensional gay characters through an honest depiction of sexual desires in a same-sex partnership, a representation of a realistic same-sex partnership and the oppressive factors that is associated and finally a depiction of the HIV/AIDS crisis and how it affected Tim and John. The film serves as reminder that minorities such as the homosexual community need, and (more importantly) deserve to be represented by layered, complex characters that are more than merely a shallow stereotype. The film transgresses boundaries and simultaneously creates two postmodern Australian icons. ‘Has been a pivotal text in the formation of an Australian gay identity’ (Stuart).

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Critical Analysis of Holding the Man: An Honest Depiction of Homosexuality. (2022, July 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-holding-the-man-an-honest-depiction-of-homosexuality/
“Critical Analysis of Holding the Man: An Honest Depiction of Homosexuality.” Edubirdie, 14 Jul. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-holding-the-man-an-honest-depiction-of-homosexuality/
Critical Analysis of Holding the Man: An Honest Depiction of Homosexuality. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-holding-the-man-an-honest-depiction-of-homosexuality/> [Accessed 1 Dec. 2022].
Critical Analysis of Holding the Man: An Honest Depiction of Homosexuality [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jul 14 [cited 2022 Dec 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-holding-the-man-an-honest-depiction-of-homosexuality/
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