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Breaking My Heart: BCW reviews the HBO film The Normal Heart

I’ve loved Larry Kramer’s writing ever since my friend Craig gave me a copy of The Normal Heart when I was 17. Since then, I’ve read and reread Reports From The Holocaust, Faggots, The Problem With Today’s Gays and a million other speeches and articles. I even watched Women In Love again because of his Oscar nod for the Screenplay.

Barry Church-Woods

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I’ve produced three different versions of the Normal Heart for stage (some more successful than others) and I credit his work with Act Up and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis as the catalyst in jump-starting my own LGBT activism.

Needless to say, when news broke that creator of Glee, Nip Tuck and American Horror Story Ryan Murphy had secured the rights for an HBO adaptation for screen my heart leapt; though there was also certainly a little trepidation on how he would bring this, one of the most heart breaking stories of the 21st Century to the masses.

How would this artist, known for saccharine pop culture classic Glee tell the tale of Larry Kramer’s fight for recognition of the seriousness of AIDS in the early 80s without bastardising the integrity of the play? Would the macabre nature of the highly stylised American Horror Story seep into the tale with sensationalist aplomb and demean the real horrors of a community left to die by an ineffective government. Would he ruin it all and give famous Dannii Minogue hater Julian McMahon a part?

Last week, HBO broadcast Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of the 1986 classic play The Normal Heart.

Starring Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo and Jim Parsons, it promised to be a master class in storytelling with a plethora of performances sure to be nominated for Golden Globes and other TV/film accolades. It delivered. Partly.

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Featuring what we were informed was approximately 50% new material by Kramer himself, the 2 hour made-for-television drama succeeded in telling the horrifying story and by social media response, moving much of it’s estimated first night audience of 1.4million to tears. Friends who have never seen or read the play or really researched what was going on in NYC at the time were all fairly moved by the broadcast. Many took to Twitter after the fact to praise to production and express dismay at this shocking period of human history. It’s true, the story is gut wrenchingly awful with several scenes that had me bubbling at the nose, but on processing the experience of viewing a few days later, I can’t help but think it missed a few fairly critical marks.

Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of meeting Larry Kramer or hearing him speak knows that this man was fury personified. Slightly mellower now with older age, he was a powerhouse of anger and passion for the cause (the very thing that alienated him from his peers). Ned Weeks, the principle character played by Ruffalo is based on Kramer, with many of his monologues and much of his dialogue in the play based on his various published articles from the time.

Disappointingly, it seems from the screen adaptation, that Ruffalo’s performance serves principally to tell the story from the point of view of a hard done by, down trodden schlepp. I’m not sure how someone as talented as Ruffalo could get this wrong, so I’m guessing there are other reasons.

Maybe initial screenings found Ned to be too dis-likable. Maybe Kramer thought on his portrayal of his young self with more tenderness nearly thirty years after writing the play. Maybe Murphy really doesn’t have a clue. Or maybe Ruffalo just wanted to spend more time getting his ‘gay eyes’ right so people would believe he really fancied men.

Either way, whether due to direction, performer choice, sloppy editing or initial audience reactions, this central performance does not do Ned Weeks nor Larry Kramer any justice.

Sadly, getting the essence of this pivotal role wrong serves to slow down the entire saga. Julia Roberts, Taylor Kitch and Matt Bomer all suffer in their performances, presumably due to some rather clunky editing, though each come into their own in the better known monologues from the play, with Roberts stealing the film as Dr Emma Brookner’s application for funding is rejected.

Moments of tenderness between Ned and Felix also lose some gravitas as wonderfully intimate dialogue is cut and pasted elsewhere in the screenplay, often between different characters to offer a little background where none is needed, though there are some genuinely brilliant intimate moments between them.

Scenes where activists are threatening civil disobedience should show the urgency of the documentary footage in How to Survive a Plague, instead they come with the burden of a hundred deaths and again, this decision slows down what should be seen as a meteoric rise of crises.

Amidst these few things that bothered me, there were however some exceptional moments, redeeming most faults and bringing the film on par with many modern classics.

When all this is said and done, Ruffalo’s chemistry with Alfred Molina as Ned’s brother Ben brings out a truly wonderful performance in both when they finally come to blows over Ben’s disinterest in the crisis.

Joe Mantello’s portrayal of Mickey Marcus’s breakdown is as perfect a performance as I’ve seen on screen in years.

Jim Parson’s portrayal of Tommy Boatwright delivers an anchor of compassion amidst the chaos, and whether it was Murphy’s or Kramer’s decision, expanding the role of this immensely likeable character was a genius move.

As with all critical writing, this is just my point of view.  My husband who sat next to me during the screening thinks differently.  Perhaps I’m too close to my idea of what it should be.  Maybe I’m right.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Either way, I urge anyone who can to experience The Normal Heart. Be it on HBO, on stage, or reading the script, this story needs to be heard. And in a week where the President of the United States of America made a proclamation that June is LGBT Pride Month, it will let you see just how far we’ve come politically.

And exactly what we’re capable of when we work as a community.

If you were one of the many that watched, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on it.  Share your thoughts below…

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