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You might wonder what a film version of Larry Kramer‘s acclaimed, Tony-winning play The Normal Heart – which first premiered in 1985 and was then revived on Broadway in 2011 – could really add to the story, or even why HBO decided to greenlight it.
But director Ryan Murphy makes it very clear from the onset: The movie is a way to remember. It takes something revered in theater circles and give it a wide release with a cache of bright stars. It will get seen, and the message about the horrible history of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic won’t be forgotten.
Adapting his own play, Kramer keeps the anger front and center – more than one character in the movie shouts or cries or both, with startling clarity, a question that cuts to the bone – “Why are they letting us die?”
For those people who didn’t see the play or, more importantly, weren’t there to witness or read about the onset of what was first described as “gay cancer,” The Normal Heart works best as modern history. Knowing what we do now, it’s hard to fathom that so many people looked the other way. And so many levels of government – from major city halls (the story is set in Manhattan) to the White House – were years late in acknowledging the spread of the disease, worsening its impact.
The Normal Heart beats with Kramer’s anger and disappointment and is not afraid to point fingers at those who stuck their heads in the sand. What makes the story so powerful in many ways is how those in the gay community were resistant to the notion that a “plague” was underway, and those who were closeted and in positions of power (and did nothing, initially) get the deepest scorn.
Starring Mark Ruffalo as Ned Weeks, essentially a stand-in for Kramer, The Normal Heart kicks off in 1981 with a look at Fire Island summer frolics, but almost instantly turns dark with the first fits of coughing from Craig (Jonathan Groff), the lover of Bruce (Taylor Kitsch), a closeted investment banker.
From there, it’s a quick escalation – even at two hours and 15 minutes, it’s hard for Murphy and Kramer to cram in all the years, tears and politics. Whereas the play could be more direct, a film needs to breath a bit, but this one can’t — it’s a wonder that HBO didn’t make this a miniseries instead.
But at least with the escalating pace, there’s never a sense that the AIDS crisis just simmered without doing much damage – the number of victims rose steadily and alarmingly, and Kramer and Murphy make that clear quickly. But even with the mounting funerals and sense of community-wide devastation that gives the film its deepest sense of sorrow, the “outside” world didn’t take much notice, and that ends up being the most harrowing factor of looking back at history. It’s always the inaction that seems most profoundly shocking in retrospect.
The Normal Heart manages to work both sides of the issue – the anger at inaction and those complicit in turning a blind eye, and the personal toll the disease took.
Ruffalo gets to embody both equally as Ned, the rabble-rouser calling the community to action who is also in love with Felix (Matt Bomer), a New York Times reporter who gets the disease and withers away slowly and sadly while Ned watches. Bomer is excellent here and, among a star-studded cast, truly stands out.
Jim Parsons is also excellent and adds both compassion and humor as he reprises his role from the play. The Normal Heart also stars Julia Roberts as Dr. Emma Brookner, Alfred Molina as Ned’s brother Ben, plus Joe Mantello, BD Wong and Finn Wittrock.
While a miniseries might have truly been something to behold – allowing the slow helplessness to really penetrate viewers, there’s something to be said about making a big, loud noise and getting the message out – again. In that sense, both Murphy and Kramer do the play justice (as you would expect) and have created a powerful modern reminder for those too young to have lived through the all-too-recent past.
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