Originally produced off-Broadway in 1985, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart arrived onstage as a howl of anger: against the mysterious disease that struck the gay community without warning; against the blasé government that sat idly by for years as the disease took its toll; and against the medical professionals who refused to treat the sick and dying for fear of becoming ill themselves.
In the intervening years, important films have been made on the subject, with 1991’s Longtime Companion and HBO’s own 2003 adaptation of Angels in America standing out. Nevertheless, a record of this landmark deserves to be made, and Ryan Murphy has done a fine job on the film version (with a screenplay by Kramer) making its broadcast debut this coming Sunday. And the casting of some of today’s hottest stars assures it will actually be seen, hopefully reaching a young adult audience whose knowledge of the history of AIDS and governmental denial might be rather slim — if they’re aware at all.
Star Mark Ruffalo delivers an abrasive portrayal of Ned Weeks, the gay activist (and Kramer avatar) who organized his brethren and railed against the system as the scourge began to take its toll. Taylor Kitsch plays against type as Bruce, a more conservative activist who bristles at Ned’s righteous anger. Jim Parsons brings an appealing warmth to the fatalistic Tommy in the role he also played on Broadway. And the always welcome Alfred Molina provides excellent support as Ned’s aloof attorney brother, whose change of heart about his younger sibling’s “lifestyle” almost comes too late.
Julia Roberts is a revelation as Emma Bruckner, the polio-crippled doctor who is just as furious as Ned, aligning with him to force the establishment to recognize the crisis. And Matt Bomer is heartbreaking as Felix, the love of Ned’s life, who succumbs to the disease. Bomer lost 40 pounds during production to depict his character’s final days, and his appearance is shocking.
Murphy’s direction propels the story forward with the same relentless urgency that Ned is feeling. Even at 132 minutes, it never wavers in its determination. And Murphy depicts the ravages of the disease and complacency of the system in blunt, shocking scenes entirely appropriate for conveying Kramer’s rage.
Since the timeline in the film extends only to 1984, it makes for a rather bleak story — no revelations or happy endings here. But Murphy and Kramer have accomplished something more important — memorializing this dark era in American history to make sure that no one will ever forget it.
The Normal Heart premieres Sunday, May 25, at 9 p.m. on HBO.
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