HBO has a fantastic track record when it comes to their original films. More so in the last couple of years with movies like Phil Spector, Behind the Candelabra and Mary and Martha. The Normal Heart can firmly be added to the list of great HBO films. It is also one of the most important films HBO has produced since The Larimie Project.
Based on the play, The Normal Heart stars Mark Ruffalo as Ned Weeks, a Jewish, gay writer who also works for a gay rights organization. The film follows his experience during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980′s. Ned learns about the disease through Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) and gets a first hand look at someone dying from the disease. The AIDS epidemic is framed through Ned’s deeply romantic relationship with Felix Turner (Matt Bomer) as they both watch the world ignore what’s happening as their friends and loved ones slowly die from a disease that no one wants to help cure.
The movie’s strength comes from the performances. Mark Ruffalo gives possibly his greatest performance ever in the role of Ned Weeks. He hits this perfect blend of anger and determination. Even during his most angry moments, there’s a real rationality to what he says. He’s not an angry lead that goes on tirades with no end point. Instead of delivering these long boring monologues, he infuses this raw emotion into it.
Despite not being gay himself, his chemistry with Matt Bomer is very real. He gives a raw performance that will no doubt earn him multiple awards this year and rightfully so. On top of Ruffalo’s performance, the supporting cast was brilliant. Julia Roberts played against type in The Normal Heart. She was on “right side” but she was not exactly likable. She, like most of the cast, was angry the entire time. Dr. Brookner was one of the few people outside of the gay community that cared and the few times Roberts showed vulnerability it was tied in with her anger. Jim Parsons also put in a great performance as Tommy Boatwright.
He had a few, very short moments of comedic relief but his performance was nuanced in a way that no other cast member’s was. Parsons delivered one of the most powerful scenes in the film when his character, stoic almost the whole time, finally broke down at the funeral of a friend. It was tear inducing and powerful. The story is very specific and ends abruptly. As mentioned, the film is really about Ned and Felix’s relationship and thus when their story is told, there is nothing else. There is a short afterward about what happened later in the 1980′s when the government finally public acknowledged that AIDS existed.
It would have been a nice addition to see Ned deal with the high profile celebrity deaths and fighting even more over the years. I dare anyone to watch this film and not shed a tear. Tears for not only these fictional characters but for all the gay men who died at this time and were simply ignored. For all those who have died since and for all those who have been stigmatized for being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Despite the film taking place 30 years ago, the struggle is still alive and well for gays all over the world. They are continuously discriminated against and HIV/AIDS is still a major issue within the community. The Normal Heart undoubtedly packs an emotional punch for anyone who believes in human rights and human dignity.