Aspiring actor Timothy Conigrave and football star John Caleo met and fell in love at Melbourne’s Xavier College in the 1970s. Over the next 15 years, their relationship was tested by distance, jealousy, disapproving families and, finally, the HIV/AIDS epidemic that had begun sweeping across the world. Told with searing intimacy and a theatre-maker’s knack for storytelling, Conigrave completed his memoir, Holding the Man, just 10 days before he succumbed to his illness in 1994.

For the first film adaptation of Conigrave’s book, Melbourne actor Craig Stott has been cast in the role of John. Where to begin with such an expansive role? Football, apparently.

“That was such a big part of John’s life, so that was my entry point,” Stott says. “I always try to find the thing that is most different, and that was it for me. That was where I got my physical centre for John.”

It’s a grand and sweeping tragic love story, he says, similar to an opera, with its soaring highs and majestic lows, something Stott attributes to the style and personal connection of director Neil Armfield (Candy, 2006) who knew Conigrave through theatre circles in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “Neil was the ultimate person to direct this. He has such an understanding of the time, the place and the life. Neil’s such an iconic storyteller, and this is such an iconic story.”

While the book has been a slow-burning seller since it was published in the 1990s, it amassed a cult following, especially in the gay community. It’s a generous and staggeringly honest account, both of this couple and the wider story of HIV/AIDS in Australia, capturing the atmosphere of sexual freedom and the shock and confusion when the illness became known. But it’s also a deeply accessible love story, resonant well beyond its gay and Australian context, and as a stage adaptation (written by Tommy Murphy, also the screenwriter) it enjoyed successful seasons here and abroad.

Why is that? “Everyone in the audience, whether they’re gay or straight, imagines going through that with their lover,” Stott says. “And love does not discriminate – we discriminate, human beings discriminate – but love does not. So for me, it’s no wonder it’s been received the way it has.”

Both book and film are unflinching in the face of the grim – and at times graphic – medical realities of HIV/AIDS, a strange focus for a love story. Stott agrees. “The book is a very graphic dissection of what it is to die, and the physical process of dying,” he says. “But that’s just as much a part of the story as the love is, in the same way that love is just as much a part of the suffering.”

That it manages any sense of joy in this bleak landscape is one of the book’s most notable achievements, and these pitch-perfect moments of comedy carry over to the film. Tim’s playful wit, combined with John’s good-natured attitude in the face of medical indignities, offer a delicate balance of light and shade. In a particularly memorable scene, in which John’s thick, lustrous hair has been shaved in a hospice, Tim is decorating his bald head with hospital-issued dixie cups in the fashion of a dinosaur. “Are you making fun of me?” John deadpans while gasping for breath, and the audience takes a well-earned opportunity to laugh at the absurdity of the moment.

The humour, Stott says, is also related to the overarching absurdity inherent in the queer experience. “When John shoves Tim, half naked, into the bedroom closet [when John’s family comes home unexpectedly], it’s hilarious, and not just because of the symbolism. That wouldn’t happen in a heterosexual relationship; they wouldn’t be in a situation where they have to hide. It’s an absurdist kind of humour where nothing’s black and white, and joy and pain coexist.”

Stott’s also very excited about the potential political impact of a film like this, at the dawn of a piece of legislation that may make marriage equality a reality. “If this film affects the right people, it could really change the political landscape,” he says. “It really just shows that love is love.” And if there were ever an opportunity for life to imitate art, this might just be the film to do it.

Holding the Man is out in cinemas now.