Midway through new Australian film Candy, Dan, a young poet and heroin addict played by Heath Ledger, throws his older gay friend and mentor Casper (Geoffrey Rush) an unexpected question.

If they’re paying for it, do they expect you to have a stiffy? Dan asks.

It helps, a bemused Casper advises.

Dan is straight but is contemplating sex work to fuel an increasingly pricey habit. Like other gay-themed scenes in Candy, Dan’s inquiries are a humorous respite during an otherwise harrowing film.

Later, Dan backs off from the rent boy option after visiting a Sydney beat. Instead, he chooses to scam another beat user -“ with amusing results.

Candy‘s gay director Neil Armfield, best known for his work at Belvoir Street Theatre, says playing up the film’s queer content was a deliberate choice.

Adapted from the novel by Luke Davies and shot mainly in inner-city Sydney, the film follows Dan and Candy (Abbie Cornish), young lovers tormented by heroin addiction.

Armfield saw similarities between the drug themes and homosexuality.

I think there are interesting parallels with gay experience, he said.

It’s kind of a quality about an interest in the illicit I suppose, that heroin [like homosexuality] is like this secret in society, that people don’t talk about.

It sort of breeds in a taboo and the silence that surrounds it.

While the lovers’ heroin addiction provides narrative drive, Armfield said Candy was a primal love story most of all.

I wanted to make a very simple and loving film really, he said.

It’s a film about love and the responsibilities of love, and this thing of being interested in the way that the parents express their love for their child and how conflicted and misguided at times that is.

Armfield used the character of Casper -“ an avuncular chemistry professor with a taste for toy boys -“ to flesh out the theme.

Geoffrey’s character Casper is there as a kind of surrogate father to Heath Ledger’s Dan, Armfield said. The relationship is both predatory and very generous.

One of the country’s foremost theatre and opera directors, Armfield chose Candy for his feature film debut because of the passion and momentum of the book and its comedy, but also the intensity and the complexity of the love relationship.

He assembled a stellar cast that includes Tony Martin and Noni Hazlehurst as Candy’s parents, and took a lot of theatre people with me as he made the leap from stage to screen.

The approach was to try with key people to establish our own rules and our own way of dealing with film, Armfield said.

There are so many rules that are born of -˜that’s the way films happen’ which can be challenged and you can actually make those rules right for yourself.

Having all that support made it a much more relaxed experience than I had feared.

Armfield said he hoped Candy‘s message would linger, not least among the gay community.

Heroin should be a kind of metaphor in the film. I think we all seek escape. We all seek intensification of pleasurable experience, he said.

[But] the more you concentrate everything on the present, the more destructive it is for the future. I know people who are fucking themselves up on crystal and it’s for the momentary kick of a few fabulous nights out.

There’s a contour to our lives where you have good times and you have bad times, and you have to be able to experience them both. The more you try and artificially inflate the good times the worse it gets. It destroys the patterns of nature.

Candy opens on 25 May.

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