(May 25, PDI-Entertainment)
By Oliver M. Pulumbarit
Painfully illustrating the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s, the HBO movie “The Normal Heart” is based on Larry Kramer’s Tony-winning play. Powerful and nuanced performances vivify the drama, which revolves around conflicted members of
New York City’s
Mark Ruffalo stars as proactive writer Ned Weeks, who witnesses the sudden rise of what some had dubbed “gay cancer.” Ned and Dr. Emma Brooker (Julia Roberts), baffled by the mysterious disease, break the news to gay friends and acquaintances. The response is resounding confusion, with many of them dismissing the announcement as needless and alarmist.
But far from having cried, “Wolf!” Ned sees the reality of gay men, many of them promiscuous, succumbing to what would later be called AIDS. He and a small group of friends and colleagues inform the community via a newsletter and, eventually, a gay advocacy-volunteer group.
The group has its share of infighting, though, as members disagree mostly on Ned’s gung-ho tactics. They struggle as well with convincing the city’s indifferent mayor, who has yet to recognize the onslaught of the disease.
“The Normal Heart,” directed by Ryan Murphy and written by Kramer, is based on the latter’s 1981 hosting of a gathering, which eventually led to the cofounding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis advocacy group.
The film is a taut, heart-wrenching look at the challenges faced by the gay community at the time, a period rightly depicted as pivotal and uncertain. The gay minority is silently being decimated, and it would take years for the American government to address the issue openly.
An eclectic, aptly chaotic bunch, the characters each react differently to the destructive pestilence. Ruffalo is surprisingly moving as the disenfranchised Ned, whose mettle is tested when his close friends and a lover are affected in varying ways.
Roberts veers away from typically feel-good, thoroughly bubbly roles for the nonce and plays a polio survivor, moving around on a wheelchair, seemingly a prophetess of doom, initially. Seriously perplexed, Dr. Brooker experiences a righteous and inevitable meltdown, which the actress delivers with corresponding verve.
The ensemble is sublime; the film benefits immensely from the presence of openly gay actors Matt Bomer (as Ned’s journalist lover) and Jim Parsons (as a no-nonsense activist). Other gay actors, Jonathan Groff and BD Wong, have smaller roles.
Taylor Kitsch plays a gay guy adequately; he does okay as Ned’s dear friend and eventual rival for leadership, but is ultimately less noticed because of the parade of overwhelming performances.
“You cry and you cry until you think you can’t cry anymore—and then you cry some more,” Ned says during a realization, practically describing scene after scene of affecting circumstances. The two-hour movie does have a nigh-consistent focus on loss—and losing battles.
Apart from the fight for knowledge about the disease, the film repeatedly presents the ongoing struggles of gay people for acceptance, as exemplified by Ned’s disagreement with his older brother, solidly played by Alfred Molina.
“I will not speak to you again until you accept me as your equal,” Ned angrily asserts, adding, “your healthy equal!”
“The Normal Heart” is a timely, precisely crafted reminder that such fights for recognition, and the casualties of apathy, should never be forgotten.