Director Ryan Murphy clearly has no glee left in him for this thumping, harsh, but selfless adaption of Larry Kramer’s landmark 1985 play, The Normal Heart. Chronicling the part-biographical real life sorrows and fights of Kramer’s own early 1980s world, this ensemble piece drops any pretence of a slow build for a fearsomely frank look at the early impact of HIV/AIDS on the gay communities of New York. The Normal Heart is less about the hedonism hangover of the 1970s and more about the fear of losing the social and political progress (such as it was) to do all of that all over again if needs be without prejudice.
It is 1981 and Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) is travelling to Fire Island for a bout or three of ‘Mighty Real’ no-strings debauchery. Clearly not at total ease with being in love, Weeks is a sexually adrift soul plagued by a small sense of self-loathing and a big of sense of self-righteousness. Within minutes friends begin falling by the wayside as director Murphy puts over the breathless speed and impact of the early 80s AIDS deaths via a clever piece of zeitgeist gay casting proving no-one was exempt. As this devastation takes its cruel hold, Ned is instantly compelled to begin the fight for better mayoral assistance and medical messages in a fiercely homophobic and two-faced world. Immediately, a concerned and already clued-up Dr Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) is dealing with the now constant stream of patients and a bubbling resentment her Polio-blighted world sees her in a wheelchair as all around her guys are gambling with their very lives for a human contact she has never had. Enter Ned into her initially cold world of pragmatic facts and health budget honesty.
As lesions spread like Rorschach spots testing the psyche of the whole gay community, The Normal Heart throws most of its trailer beats out in the first fifteen minutes. The end result is that you don’t know what the end result is. Exploring the merits or not of “promiscuity” becoming a “political agenda”, the film is partly about sex versus sense as Ned battles his own role in gay society – defying harsh truths posed by his older brother Ben (Alfred Molina, on terrific form) and assuming all past infatuations should become romances. But make no mistake – The Normal Heart is a grenade of a film about a grenade of a plight. Kramer’s adaption of his own play shares the operatic emotions of Tony Kushner’s Angels In America but has none of the fantasy relief. Or even the episodic structure to gather breath. As cold food is left in hospital corridors by medical interns too fearful to feed the dying victims and gay activist friends refuse to ask favours of influential colleagues for fear of outing themselves, the multi-stranded hypocrisy of it all is almost as much of a gut-punch as the very frankly played effects of the virus.
Clearly trying to remember the stage foundations of the original play, Murphy and Kramer let ensemble dialogues unfurl in single rooms before showing the scared panic of lovers hauling their dying partners across town or further (one flashback anecdote from Taylor Kitsch’s Bruce is truly shocking in its telling). Ruffalo is on aggravating form as Ned – possibly becoming too much of an irritant as others are trying to tread more cautiously and sometimes fairly. Dr Brookner suggests his “big mouth” is not an irritant but a “cure”, but Ned does do a lot of shouting. This is a piece where many a central character is afforded a powerful monologue that will just – like the original play – truly floor the audience. Joe Mantello’s Micky has a particularly salient and honest monologue, a volunteer Estelle (Danielle Fernand) wants to do anything to help and details the tragic reasons why and Roberts’ last act lambasting of the bureaucrats required this viewer to have a press of the ‘pause’ button before continuing.
Almost too separately pitched from his campaigning colleagues to make him in any way likeable (and possibly creating the vaguest of faults of the film), Ruffalo’s Ned is however unexpectedly granted a true love in the guise of Matt Bomer’s Felix – a figure he has known before (played out in a nearly fun retro flashback advertising the pitfalls of the bathhouses within faux ads for themselves). By bringing that deliberately beautiful and fresh Clark Kent canvas to the story, Bomer’s Felix is a welcome breath of cute fresh air. But a single tear running down his chiselled cheekbones whilst making love is a chilling coda of Felix’s future. “Men do not naturally not love”, he remarks, “ – they learn not to”. Bomer will get award recognition for this. So will others. Not that awards are why narratives like The Normal Heart need to be told. There is the film’s constant dialogue about equating history turning its back on the gay communities for gay men who blindly do the same with the next casual partner. The film and play both catalogue all facets of the gay condition – its support friendships, contradictions and gay homophobes. But Larry Kramer, Ryan Murphy and The Normal Heart do not make judgments. Judgments don’t help the dying. The Normal Heart is about the search for dignity – in the characters loves, their workplaces, their campaign tactics and ultimately their deaths. The film does have its flaws. It ends far too abruptly and offers scant respite. But that is maybe its point. And Murphy is reportedly prepping a sequel for Ned.
And there are pockets of not-bleak. Jim Parsons’ quick-witted Tommy is the only near-fun figure of the film, becoming a calm and waspish mediator for both the characters and audience. His use of suddenly unneeded Rolodex cards – his “cardboard tombstones” – is particularly affecting, as is the film’s end coda with a choice of music that is almost too much to ever hear again without seeing all those faces that are not here anymore. Tommy serenely observes when pondering now dead colleagues, artists and writers – “all those plays that won’t get written”. Larry Kramer should forever know he did write this and Ryan Murphy’s brutal film creates a new immortality for a vital piece of writing about those who had so such luck.
The Normal Heart airs on HBO in America on Sunday 25th May and on Sky Atlantic in the UK soon.