The Normal Heart

Larry Kramer is as mad as hell and isn’t going to take it any more; powerful doesn’t do this movie justice.

I’ve heard people say that it seems like any movie about gay people will inevitably end in someone dying of AIDS but with the advent of ‘Love, Simon’, ‘Call Me By Your Name’, God’s Own Country’ and ‘The Weekend’ we are seeing more stories that focus on individuals and their relationships without them getting sick. However, the reality is that the HIV/AIDS pandemic is a major chapter in our history and if you don’t retell it, it gets forgotten – and it mustn’t be forgotten.

‘The Normal Heart’ is a valuable addition to the litany of movies that includes ‘Philadelphia’, ‘Angels in America’ and ‘Longtime Companion’. Where this movie differs is that it charts the rise of a movement as well as telling the very personal stories of the individuals involved.

‘The Normal Heart’ begins with our lead character Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) visiting the East Coast gay party central, Fire Island in 1981 for his friend Craig’s birthday.  Mark Ruffalo is playing a fictionalised version of the movies’ screenwriter (and activist) Larry Kramer. As they celebrate, Craig begins to exhibit symptoms that he is very ill.  From here, the movie then charts the genesis of a movement that led to the recognition of a global health pandemic and ultimately to its detection and treatment.  It’s semi-autobiographical in that all the main characters existed (though their names have been changed) but the events have been condensed and heightened to work effectively to tell the story in 2 hours.

One of the two central relationships of ‘The Normal Heart’ is between Ned and Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch).  They’re both desperate to help where no-one else will but they clash wildly on how to go about it.  Ned is an angry, loose cannon, unwilling to compromise while Bruce is more careful and conciliatory – the heart vs. the head.

Julia Roberts is Dr Emma Brookner, wheelchair-bound due to contracting Polio as a child. She is the catalyst that fuels Ned’s anger and indignation whilst also providing him with hope, ‘Polio is a virus and no one gets Polio any more’.  Her initial advice to gay men is that they should refrain from sex in order to survive.  While she is driven initially by logic, through getting to know the people setting up the Gay Men’s Health Crisis group she learns that there are larger, societal and political reasons why this advice is untenable.

Jim Parsons as Tommy Boatright really stood out for me, in a sea of anger and passion, he is the voice of calm and reason.   He’s the most relatable and it feels like he takes you by the hand and leads you through a story that often feels more like a war zone.

The wider political story here is juxtaposed with the effect that this new disease is having on the individuals.  The first, is the dramatic difference we see through Ned’s eyes of an acquaintance, Sanford, who he bumps into in the Dr’s waiting room, he has a couple of scars on his face ‘that keep getting bigger and won’t go away’.  A bit later on, Ned is visiting an isolation ward at the hospital and we see Sanford, totally alone, covered in scars and out of his mind in one of the rooms.  It’s also here that we see the inhumanity, driven by fear, that vulnerable people were subjected to by those meant to be caring for them.

The other central relationship is the love story between Ned and Felix Turner (Matt Bomer). Having met very briefly before, Ned is now more open and their relationship enables him to fall in love for probably the first time.  But like a character in a horror movie, the disease doesn’t discriminate between its victims and Felix soon finds a scar on his foot that ‘keeps getting bigger and doesn’t go away’.

Originally written as a play, there are half dozen instances when a character will give an impassioned speech and I felt that in this context it worked and didn’t seem stagey.   The speeches are immensely powerful, heartfelt and moving whilst punctuating the story and succinctly summarising where a character is at.

In the great honour roll of civil rights leaders, the ones fighting for LGBTQ+ rights are much less welll-known and so the stories of people such as Larry Kramer, Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones & Peter Tatchell require telling.  These people define ‘hero’ as they dedicate their lives fighting for the basic equalities that should be available to everyone despite being portrayed as a nuisance at best or a villain a worst.

Shamefully, their/our fight is still relevant today, nearly 40 years later.

28 May 2020 – Yesterday Mr Larry Kramer died aged 84; the LGBT community has lost one its true heroes. Fearless in the face of unabashed hatred, he fought for our very lives. One of the truly heartwarming things since yesterday has been the outpouring of genuine love for this man. RIP Larry x

Larry Kramer (1935-2020)
Larry Kramer (1935-2020)
StoryScreenplay by Larry Kramer, based on his own play
CastMark Ruffalo, as Ned Weeks
Matt Bomer, as Felix Turner
Taylor Kitsch, as Bruce Niles
Jim Parsons, as Tommy Boatright
Julia Roberts, as Dr Emma Brookner
DirectorRyan Murphy
Running Time132 mins

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Welsh librarian, working in London and living in Brighton.

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