The Normal Heart, the important and immortal play by Larry Kramer is now a movie which will make its broadcast launch on HBO Canada day-and-date with HBO in the USA on Sunday, May 25, 2014. It will also receive its Canadian Premiere at the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival on Friday, May 23, 2014 with co-star Matt Bomer in attendance. The fundraising screening is preceded by a cocktail reception and all proceeds will benefit both Inside Out and the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR).
The Normal Heart (2014) *****
Writ. Larry Kramer, Dir. Ryan Murphy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina, Jonathan Groff, Joe Mantello
Review By Greg Klymkiw
The Normal Heart is as close a dramatic rendering as we're likely to get (at least for now) of how tragic and horrifying those early days of the AIDS epidemic were during the 1980s. Riveting and deeply moving, the picture is both a love story and a snapshot of how a sharply divided community fought amongst itself within its common goal to address the ignorance and prejudice of a society refusing to pay attention to the swift near-annihilation of an entire generation of young men.
While watching the film, there are times when anger, sadness and frustration will consume your spirit. With equal weight, however, your soul is alternately fed with love, compassion and joy. This extraordinary picture, shocking in terms of what it details to be sure, also evokes more than a little stupefaction that the journey of this important story to the silver screen took as long as it did. Larry Kramer's play first opened in New York in 1985 and has subsequently been performed all over the world.
In the 90s, Barbra Streisand acquired the motion picture rights, then spent over two decades unsuccessfully attempting to raise the financing. The roadblocks included the controversial material, but also, writer Kramer's eventual and seeming bid to sabotage Streisand with outrageous demands for a production fee for the underlying rights to his screenplay. In reality, it seems clear he felt Streisand had unfairly brought another writer on board to render the property more cinematic, as frankly, would have been her right, but might also have made more sense if she, in fact, did want to direct it to the best of her considerable power as a filmmaker.
Finally, it took the unlikeliest champion of the material to get The Normal Heart made into a film. Ryan Murphy, the creator of the ludicrous but compulsively watchable TV series Glee and the semi-abominable Julia Roberts vehicle Eat, Pray, Love, starkly directs this material with spartan skill, urgency and a simple but effective mise-en-scène which highlights character, narrative, historical high (and low) points in the war on AIDS and maybe, most importantly, the sheer ferocity of Kramer's writing which is levelled at all the ignorance, hatred and suspicion towards the gay community in those ever-so dark days. Given the current idiotic attempts of governments to welch on various human rights issues relating to the LGBT nation, recently with respect to gay marriage, one is grateful to Murphy for weaving a critical stance into his dramatic approach.
Many critics easily, lazily and bone-headedly slapped the word "pamphleteering" to Kramer's writing when the play first hit the stage. I suspect we might see more than a few idiot film (and TV) "critics" do the same with Murphy's film of Kramer's screenplay adaptation, but for me, there's absolutely nothing wrong when a drama wears a heart of didacticism on its sleeve. What's wrong is when the potential for holier-than-thou speechifying becomes the be-all, end-all of the piece to the point where the work suffers narratively. This is simply NOT the case in Murphy's rendering of Kramer's material.
Given the fact that the story relates the political backdrop of both the gay and straight sides of the coin (though clearly and always through Kramer's POV), it seems ludicrous to even try avoiding the sermonic characteristics of the time, place, situation and personae of the film's content and approach. If anything, it makes sense to co-opt the modes of communication rooted in non-secular practice to preach beyond (though also including) the converted, especially given how much of the prejudice levelled at gay culture, lifestyle and society has been so bastardized and exploited by virtually all organized religion to the point where it's seeped insidiously into the secular aspects of existence and thought.
The main character of The Normal Heart is Ned Weeks, a thinly disguised version of Kramer himself, beautifully played by Mark Ruffalo. As the film progresses we see that what fuels him, at least on the surface, is his steadfast belief in fighting fire with fire. At first though (and speaking of fire), we're introduced to Ned during a magnificently rendered depiction of a glorious, fun, disco-music-infused, dick-waggingly, ass-cheek-promenadingly and thoroughly delirious sex-drenched weekend on Fire Island, the traditional gay playground away from the concrete jungle of Manhattan.
Ned seems shy and out of place. He observes the bacchanalian revelry, but can't seem to be part of it himself. If he has a problem with his "skin", it turns out to have nothing to do with prudery or confusion, but when he meets the New York Times "gay" fashion/party columnist Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), Ned realizes that what he's craved as a gay man has little to do with indulging in a sexual revolution that's wildly, inclusively scattershot, but that rather, what he's sought is a revolution that allows gay men to find love.
Love, is indeed what he finds, but it comes during a time when gay men are dropping like flies from a mysterious "gay illness". Ned dives into the issue with the ferocity of a pit bull. He forms a group devoted to exposing, educating and lobbying for research into the disease which, of course becomes known as the HIV-virus which causes AIDS. Given Ed's histrionics, he agrees to be the silent leader and instead lets Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch), a gorgeous closeted muffin to be the public president of the organization. He befriends Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) who appears to be the only medical practitioner taking the disease seriously on the Isle o' Manhattan and then Ned launches an all-out attack upon media, the medical profession, several levels of government (included that of the closeted New York Mayor Ed Koch), the straight community and yes, even the gay community (many of who equate their newfound freedom with rampant sexual expression).
Driving the narrative is Ned's commitment to the cause and his deepening love for Felix, but along the way, the film increasingly adds several exclamatory elements touching upon the disease itself: the suffering, the death, the outright rejection of AIDS patients by the medical community (everyone from hospital maintenance guys up to doctors and administrators), the continued efforts of politicians to ignore - mostly via prejudice - what is seen to be a disease that "only" attacks homosexuals.
We even experience dramatically the horrendous number of months and/or years that so many gay men of this generation genuinely believed there was something wrong with them and how they agreed to unhelpful and often ruinous psychotherapy. Ned admits he subjected himself to analysis and desperately looks to his rich older brother (Alfred Molina) to not only help "the cause", but to finally accept that Ned has eschewed the notion of being "sick". He wants what anyone would want - for his closest blood relative to look upon him as a "normal" brother.
There are times in the picture when we're outright jangled with the horror of this disease. Murphy never pulls punches here and there are several set pieces that are infused with the kind of urgency and outright fear, panic and sheer monstrosity of the disease. True to the material's theatrical roots, though employed here organically to the medium of film, are additional exclamatory elements when many of the major characters (and a perfectly pitched cast), launch into monologues that are as stirring and dramatically harrowing as anyone is likely to experience on-screen. These might even become the moments where some scribes take aim at the material's seeming didacticism, but they will be wrong - dead wrong (as per usual).
The Normal Heart is a film that must be seen as widely as possible. My own thirteen-year-old daughter was devastated and awakened to the reality that faced so many family friends in their youth and that face new generations even now. She was raised to believe homosexuality was "normal", has loved her "uncles" as much as they loved her, but upon seeing the extremity of prejudicial events detailed in the film, she was unequivocally shocked. She understood that "some" were ignorant about homosexuality, but not until seeing Murphy and Kramer's film did the severity of it, historically and contemporaneously, hit her like a ton of bricks. She laughed and wept all through the picture, as did her parents, but the next day she went to school with additional resolve to fight even harder for the rights of kids her own age STILL suffering from hatred, prejudice and ignorance.
Yes, gay or straight, this is a film for all who hold humanity dear, but what I really, really hope is that kids see The Normal Heart. I don't care what their age is so long as they're mature enough to grasp adult drama pure and simple. It's the kids who are our future and who might benefit the most from seeing this great film. They're the future that was denied the millions of brave victims of this horrible disease, but most of all, they're the real future of love and acceptance in a world still fraught with prejudice. See it for them. See it with them. See it for hope, for a future where hatred will never replace and/or deny care, compassion, devotion and respect for all.
The Normal Heart receives it Canadian Premiere at the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival on Friday, May 23, 2014 with co-star Matt Bomer in attendance. The film makes its broadcast launch across North America on HBO Canada day-and-date with HBO in the USA on Sunday, May 25, 2014. In Eastern Canada, the film will be available on TMN GO and HBO Canada OnDemand. In Western Canada, episodes are available on HBO Canada OnDemandHBO Canada HD, on the go with Shaw Go Movie Central app, Bell TV app, Telus Optik on the go, and HBO Canada On Demand.