In the last few years there seems to have been a renewed interest in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. There have been documentaries, films and books, as well as major re-stagings of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. The reason for this is probably twofold.
Firstly there is a whole generation of LGBT people who weren’t even born when AIDS first emerged, many of whom know little about it. Even if they do know about it, they often treat it like something from the dim and distant past that has nothing to do with them (as I’ve said before, the fact gay-history isn’t taught in schools tends to make many people, including many gay people, think there isn’t one or that it isn’t important). Secondly, those who survived the emergence of ‘gay cancer’ are now getting older (Kramer is now 78) and so it’s not surprising that they should want their stories recorded to ensure that it’s those who lived through it who control the narrative.
However there’s no doubt that those from the next generation down are also doing their part. That includes 48-year-old Ryan Murphy, who managed to get The Normal Heart on screen after others had tried and failed for more than two decades. He also lined up an excellent cast.
Mark Ruffalo is New Yorker Ned Weeks, who is alarmed when other gay men start coming down with a mysterious ‘cancer’ that wipes out their immune system and results in them dying from the sort of infections that wouldn’t normally cause a baby to sneeze. Initially few people are all that interested. Most straight people couldn’t care less (or are actually happy) about what is happening to a few ‘fags’ and a lot of gay people are either ignoring it or viewing calls for restraint to be more about curtailing their hard fought sexual freedom than saving their lives.
As more and more people succumb, it becomes harder to ignore – for gay people at least. Ned helps start up Gay Men’s Health Crisis, along with the likes of closeted lawyer Bruce (Taylor Kitsch) and the idealistic Tommy (Jim Parsons), to help fight for recognition of the disease and to get funding from the city and government. His campaigning also brings him into contact with journalist Felix (Matt Bomer), who soon becomes the love of Ned’s life.
The government refuses to help. Particularly galling to Ned is that while there are gay people in important positions, all of them are deep in the closet and therefore distance themselves from the disease, even if that means more people die. Ned isn’t pleased either with what he sees as the rather timid and kowtowing approach of most of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, as he favours an angrier reaction. He soon starts sharing his forthright opinions with the media, much to the dismay of the rest of GMHC.
When it becomes clear that Felix also has the disease, Ned’s sense of urgency increases.
As you can probably tell, The Normal Heart is not a jolly film. While there is some humour it is sad, angry and often very moving. Although there are times when all the issues surrounding the emergence of AIDS become tangled – particularly in regards to the different responses and ideas about how to act – it very successfully captures the confusion and fury of those suddenly caught up in something nobody understands and which no one will help them with.
The film is helped enormously by some excellent performances. The actors seem infused with a sense that they’re doing something important and therefore need to be at the top of their game. Ruffalo is wonderful as Weeks, managing to imbue Ned with the sense of an everyday guy who becomes driven by and mix of anger and love that he can barely contain. The rest of the cast are also very good, although it’s Taylor Kitsch who gets the standout moment courtesy of a sequence where he recounts an almost impossibly unpleasant and moving story, but one which sadly wasn’t unheard of for those dealing with AIDS in the 1980s.
One of the reasons Kramer’s play and now screenplay have lasted so long isn’t just because it’s a well-written and powerful piece, but also because Larry was there on the frontline, and so while it’s a work of semi-fiction, it comes from someone who was there. Indeed Ned Weeks is a thinly veiled stand-in for Kramer, who did indeed co-found GMHC and wrote The Normal Heart in 1985 as a response to his frustration at both the apathy (and indeed disloyalty) of many gay people, as well as the wilful and increasingly cruel bureaucratic inaction.
While he has modified the play for the screen and there is perhaps a slightly less vitriolic view of the gay leadership than there is in the original text, it’s still the case that nobody in a position of power here comes off particularly well, even if it does acknowledge that ultimately even those doing the ‘wrong’ thing are still human beings underneath trying their best. However Kramer is a man for whom if your best isn’t good enough for him, he’s not going to give you much slack.
This certainly isn’t a feel good movie, but it does a very good job of taking you into the horrors that accompanied the emergence of AIDS, with an immediacy and feel for the period that’s well captured. It’s also good that this a relatively mainstream gay-themed film that doesn’t feel like it’s mediating the gay experience, or indeed the experience of dealing with AIDs, to be palatable for straight eyes.
Overall Verdict: Moving, sad, angry and extremely well-acted, The Normal Heart is a timely reminder of the past, as well as how much things have changed in the last 30 years and the danger of forgetting – both in terms of the effects of AIDS and the need for gay people to keep pushing if they want their rights respected.
The Normal Heart first airs in the UK on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on June 1st 2014.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac