The Normal Heart is messy. It’s not too pretty and it’s definitely emotionally manipulative. And it’s raw, angry – a very open wound that needs dealing with. And yet, oddly, it’s one of the few movies that I’ve seen of late that has, at its heart, humanity in all its sweaty, sensual glory.
Basic plot synopsis: gay men in New York feel the brunt of the AIDS epidemic upon them and their friends and attempt to do something about it.
Movies lately, it seems to me, lack a human heart. They want to titilate and move us and somehow entertain us with cheaper, droll, repetitive BS for two hours. But The Normal Heart is different.
On the outset there are flaws. It intends to play on the heart strings (Ryan Murphy isn’t good with the subtler things). It’s intentionally political, as plays about AIDS in the 80s usually were – they had a message to hammer home at a time it was hard for LGBT+ people to be heard. But this approach seems appropriate. The inconsistencies of the tone, the make, the random naked men, it all comes together to make a point. Sure, some of the acting is overwrought and it’s very dogmatic. But somehow the film works.
Ned Weeks, played stunningly by Mark Ruffalo, is taking the approach of anger. As he asks his brother in one of the most poignant scenes in the movie, ‘I am trying to understand why nobody gives a shit that we’re dying!’ we can see his passion, his anger. He states later that, ‘Our continued existence depends on how angry you can get.’ Said to gay men who, to Weeks, seem apathetic and wanting to appease the masses by taking a safe, gentler approach. Men who are unwilling to, as Julia Robert’s character, a doctor, says, ‘stop fucking’.
Ned takes on a crusade for public recognition by speaking out. He goes to the New York Times to a gay writer named Felix, played with the utmost subtlety and gentleness by Matt Bomer. Meanwhile he and his friends try to start a crisis center with information, care, and wills as needed. There’s a clash between the gentle, safe approach and the violent, confrontational approach – and the tension is palpable. Caught in between these two is Tommy (to my estimation, the best character in the film), played by Jim Parsons, who seems to share the passion that Ned has but with the gentleness of a good ol’ boy who doesn’t wanna offend anyone.
The movie works because it demands to be seen. It demands that we never forget the toll of equality. That it came because of death. And it demands that the social conscious never forget and, more importantly, deal with this startlingly horrible time.
It’s angry at how people have remembered and failed to remember. It’s also angry at the ongoing epidemic world wide. But there’s a lot more to it as well.
The movie moves a person into looking at LGBT+ issues more broadly and the entire time I kept thinking that maybe we’ve forgotten this part of our social conscious and are thus relegating the newest epidemic to the corner. Maybe we need to better memorialize our brothers, sisters, friends, family, lovers – anyone we know who died or suffered by taking a step forward and preventing, for example, the societal shit that’s arising against trans* people.
Maybe the movie’s greatest asset is the belief in the hope of a better future, where people actually give a damn and people don’t need to be remembered on ‘cardboard tombstones, held by a rubber band’.
The Normal Heart has aired in the United States on HBO and will come to Sky Atlantic on Saturday 7 June at 10.00pm.