HBO’s Normal Heart a tale of AIDS, anguish

Larry Kramer’s play about the disease’s rise in the 1980s is finally adapted for the screen

Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo, left, with Taylor Kitsch) tries desperately to raise awareness of AIDS in The Normal Heart. Photograph by: Bell Media
Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo, left, with Taylor Kitsch) tries desperately to raise awareness of AIDS in The Normal Heart.
Photograph by: Bell Media
MONTREAL — Better late than never: Almost 30 years after Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart hit the New York stage and three years after its Tony Award-winning revival on Broadway, this powerhouse piece about the beginnings of a disease, initially referred to as “the gay cancer,” has finally come to the screen. Albeit the small screen, where it premières Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO Canada.

The film vividly and poignantly recounts the rise of AIDS in New York in the early 1980s. But this semi-autobiographical account — playwright Kramer is HIV-positive — is far more than a painfully graphic reminder of the horrors of AIDS. It also deals with the enormous difficulty in trying to make the public and government aware and to raise funds for research and treatment, and it touches on the infighting among gay activists regarding how best to convey their message.

Much credit must go to Emmy Award-winning director Ryan Murphy (Eat Pray Love, Glee, American Horror Story). Not just for this riveting adaptation, but for getting the project off the ground in the first place. With various players — including Barbra Streisand — involved in trying to bring the play to the screen, Murphy purchased the rights four years ago.

The Normal Heart focuses on writer Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), who seems to be a thinly veiled version of Kramer. A volcanic character to say the least, Weeks is alarmed when he notices that members of New York’s gay community are not only being afflicted with this as-yet-unknown disease, but are dying.

Not that its ravages haven’t hit home for him already, but when his boyfriend, New York Times reporter Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), develops symptoms, Weeks is devastated and becomes desperate trying to rally apathetic folk of all stripes to the cause.

Weeks finds at least one important ally: physician Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), who can relate to feeling isolated. She has been confined to a wheelchair as a result of another virus, polio. Weeks and Brookner are put into the role of crusaders, trying to prevail upon the gay community to “forgo sex,” or at least to take proper precautions. It is, initially, a tough sell for a community that wants to let loose after feeling shackled for so long.

Weeks and friends form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), one of the first advocacy groups for HIV prevention, but there is even dissension in the ranks regarding whether they should use “gay” in the name, for fear of alienating the public.

The tension builds as Weeks finds himself battling other members of the GMHC, particularly investment banker Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch), who remains closeted. Trying to mediate is gay activist Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons).

In the midst of these squabbles, they have to deal with increasing prejudice from the outside: doctors refusing to examine AIDS patients, pilots refusing to fly them, even technicians refusing to fix their TVs.

As his partner Turner founders, Weeks is at his wit’s end. He tries to explain his frustration to his lawyer brother, Ben (Alfred Molina): “Nobody gives a s–t that we’re dying.” He also informs Ben that he will not speak to him again until Ben accepts him as “a healthy equal.” continue reading »» BY BILL BROWNSTEIN, THE GAZETTE MAY 22, 2014 – The Normal Heart premières Sunday, May 25 at 9 p.m. on HBO Canada.