There’s a lot of weight behind Ryan Murphy’s HBO film “The Normal Heart.” Not only was the adaptation of the Tony award-winning play a top Emmys contender before anyone ever saw the dailies, but the stark story of gay activists fighting for awareness (and survival) during the HIV/AIDS epidemic carries with it the burden of history, both from its past as a play and the real life stories that inspired it. Knowing Larry Kramer, the playwright who based much of “The Normal Heart” on his own experiences, and having an opinion one way or another on his role in gaining awareness for the crisis is bound to effect how the film is seen. Arguments have been made already, before even seeing the film, based on its history instead of what it’s become. And what Ryan Murphy and Kramer have crafted together is a truly devastating portrait of a dark mark in American history.
For most audiences, “The Normal Heart” is a star-studded true life drama, and the questioning of characters and their intentions will begin and end with what’s on screen. It’s best to view the film this way. Waiting to lay judgment actually pays off in a number of ways, both in allowing the film to tell its story and giving it time it to find its groove.
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Murphy, a writer, producer, and creator of multiple touchstone television programs, has struggled when sitting in the director’s chair. His two previous feature films have been train wrecks, more or less, and both are adaptations of cherished novels, giving fans of Kramer’s original play reason to worry. “Running With Scissors” was…well, terrible, and “Eat Pray Love” has become a cliched retort without ever having the respect of similarly ridiculed films (like “Titanic” or “Kramer vs. Kramer”).
His imperfections are apparent during the first hour of “The Normal Heart,” which clocks in at two hours and 15 minutes. Pacing issues are an early problem, with a few jarring transitions from scene to scene not having the desired effect of paralleling the random, rapid, and crippling effect of the disease on its subjects. The issue subsides as the film unfolds, but early character questions go unanswered for so long they could prove impossible to overcome for viewers akin to snap judgments.
Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), one of the few doctors who will see and treat gay men with the disease at its onset, in particular is difficult to watch. In an early meeting set up by Ned (Mark Ruffalo), Brookner lectures a large group of worried men about their lifestyle, calling on them to stop having sex because it could kill them. The goal of the scene seems to be to show the divide in mentality among those most at risk with the group snapping back at her and walking out, but Brookner steals focus with her brash attitude. Is she upset and stubborn as a doctor or a person? Does she use direct, rather harsh communication because she sees the situation as clear cut as life vs. death, or because she has a problem with the gay lifestyle? It’s unclear and distracting this early, and though it is an interesting dynamic to ponder, it’s not in line with Murphy and Kramer’s central theme or what we come to learn about her character.
Other early scenes suffer from directorial mismanagement or poorly considered decisions. The death of Bruce’s (Taylor Kitsch) boyfriend feels rushed, though Ned and Felix’s (Matt Bomer) relationship is well developed until their first date — Murphy actually uses the line “Do you think we can start over?” as well as the shot of fingers intertwining during a rather dull sex scene. Both are conventional, dated choices in scenes begging for more inspiration.
All that considered, once “The Normal Heart” hits it stride, it hits hard. Murphy still makes a few all too obvious choices (a long-awaited meeting with the mayor’s aide uses shadows so blatantly they may as well have just turned the lights on for the good guys and off for the bad), but the sheer power of the story overwhelms some of the minor mistakes. Numbers — truly frightening numbers — are brought up repeatedly to emphasize the growing urgency of the pandemic, but they also are an effective tactic in grounding the story and placing each part of it in a quickly relatable timeline. This structuring paired with raw emotion make the second half come alive and deliver on the powerful film pushed by HBO these last few months.
Generating that strong sentiment is a cast who’s working hard to make every moment count. Lead by Mark Ruffalo, each character is given their time to shine and each actor steps up to the plate (with the odd exception of Jim Parsons, the only actor returning from the cast of the play — he’s solid in his supporting role, but is given an awkward eulogy to deliver that doesn’t work). The standout is Matt Bomer, whose weight loss is thankfully only one of the reasons his efforts deserve praise. Bomer’s Felix goes through a careful, contextualized transformation of mind and body, avoiding many possible pitfalls along the way. His character is unique and well defined, and Bomer doesn’t shy away from creating the persona with subtle and extreme gestures.
But reactions to the “The Normal Heart” will boil down to the man behind it all, Ned Weeks. Ruffalo’s portrayal of Kramer’s fictional stand-in is impressive, but its the presentation of the man himself that stands out. Rather than feeling pushed to believe Weeks is in the right and ahead of the curve in his crusade for gay rights, there’s a balance of views and respect paid to the people who struggle to step into the limelight.
Bruce, who’s publicly closeted despite being a strong supporter of the movement, is verbally attacked by Weeks, but he’s still given time to convey his side, allowing the audience to understand his reasons — reasons, which are not condemned. In a particularly unsettling scene, Bruce tells Ned of his efforts to take his dying boyfriend home to see his mother. We’re placed in his shoes during the story, and we see how he handled it as opposed to how Ned would have in the same circumstances. Neither is portrayed as wrong or better. It’s honest, and without the history attached to the story, it makes “The Normal Heart” a harrowing reminder of the need for equality, then and now.