It took much too long for “The Normal Heart” to make the jump from stage to screen, but thanks to the triumphant efforts of director Ryan Murphy and an A-list cast featuring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts, the wait was worth it.
Based on Larry Kramer’s searing 1985 play, HBO’s “The Normal Heart” tells the harrowing story of the early days of the AIDS crisis when gay men in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere were dying of mysterious diseases while many, including some in the gay community, turned a blind eye to the burgeoning epidemic.
Ruffalo plays Ned Weeks, whose boyfriend, Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), becomes fatally stricken. As the body count rises, so too does Ned’s indignation. Assisted by Emma Brookner, a doctor disabled by polio (Roberts), and a group of activists, including Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch) and Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons), Ned launches a ferocious crusade to seek answers and demand help.
While the film is ultimately a story of love amid tragedy – and of prejudice and human rights – much of its focus is on the dueling tactics used in a battle for which the combatants have few weapons and no historical context at their disposal. Everything is terrifyingly new and unknown and baffling.
Ned believes that one must speak loudly to be heard. Brash, abrasive and fearlessly blunt, he’s a bundle of dynamite poised to explode in the faces of indifferent politicians and journalists, and medical officials who seem to be in denial.
“We have to do something. No one else will,” he says, trying to rally his colleagues to a more forceful demonstration of outrage.
But his friends, many of them closeted, fear that Ned’s belligerence will only further alienate those who already look down on them. They stick to the view that “you get more with honey than with vinegar.”
Even as he runs into roadblocks, Ned’s passion remains relentless. But there is heartbreak and disappointment at every turn, especially in clashes with his older brother Ben (Alfred Molina), an aloof lawyer who refuses to accept Ned as his equal.
It’s hard not to shower praise on Ruffalo, who brings the proper amount of edge and energy to the role and rocks the heck out of his combative scenes. But he’s also magnetic in the quieter moments, especially when he’s tenderly caring for Felix, who is wasting away before his eyes. It’s then we see that his character’s fury is fueled by a deep-rooted fear of loneliness.
Bomer, who went on the Matthew McConaughey plan and lost 40 pounds for the film, plays Felix with impressive warmth and vulnerability, and his chemistry with Ruffalo is striking. Then again, this entire cast shines, including Roberts, who plays Emma with substantial empathy and passion, and Parsons, who reprises his role from the 2011 Broadway revival.
But perhaps the real surprise is the behind-the-scenes work of Murphy, the co-creator of “Glee” and “American Horror Story.” Although Murphy broke ground with his depictions of gay relations on television, he’s known more for heightened, over-the-top fare than sobering drama.
But here he has tamped down all his baroque tendencies in favor of a sure-handed, straightforward approach. What he delivers is a film with piercing emotional honesty that feels rough and real, intimate and truly full of heart.