(Published on ARTSCLASH)
Gay God bless HBO. As well as being the home of perennial favourite Sex and the City (ARTCLASH is a Miranda, FYI), they’ve been solidly putting out excellent gay content for some time now. Last year saw the release of Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra (which we reviewed here), and already this year we’ve had season one of Looking, a slow-burner but one we ending up loving. Hot on the homo heels of these two on Sunday came their adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart, which takes as its subject the fight against (or lack of fight against) the HIV/AIDS crisis in the early ’80s. And don’t even try to watch it without the tissues to hand.
Let’s call it the Milk effect. Gus Van Sant’s film showed that gay dramas could be positively politically charged, written and directed by gay people and still be financially successful. And aren’t we glad it did if it means we’ll see more dramas like The Normal Heart. Featuring an all-star cast, it crucially combines gay and straight actors, with all of them pulling out stellar performances. From the powerful anger expressed by Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts as their attempts to secure funding for research or even an official acknowledgement of HIV/AIDS, to Matt Bomer’s tour de force movement from upbeat reporter to weak and frail shell. Jim Parsons is a quiet revelation too, once you can get over Sheldon Cooper playing serious and saying ‘fuck’ and such. This casting issue is not to be understated. The presence of Bomer, Parsons and Jonathan Groff means we have far more gay actors in lead roles than the exact zero offered by Brokeback Mountain, Milk and Behind the Candelabra. Which, even if this wasn’t the success that it is, is worth celebrating in itself.
But of course, there’s little room for celebration in this incredibly bleak piece. And the real success of The Normal Heart is how it really brings home the sheer devastation that the gay community faced (and faces) every day. In a crucial scene, Jim Parsons tells us how every time a friend dies, he takes their Rolodex card and puts it in a pile tied together with a rubber band. The slow accumulation of these does more to highlight the tragedy than any brutal depiction would. Not that the film is unwilling to show the debilitating effects of the virus. I felt furious at the government’s inaction just watching this, so I can only imagine the undistilled rage that must have driven the real life Mark Ruffalos.
However, the problems with the film are exposed when it comes nearer to political explanation. Some scenes can feel overly explanatory, and in one scene Ruffalo’s character expresses anger that Reagan has never publicly said the word ‘AIDS’, leaving us with the realisation that actually this is the first time the film has said AIDS itself. But these problems aside, The Normal Heart not only moved me emotionally, but also physically moved me to sign myself up to get tested, to stop the horrors of HIV/AIDS happening to my loved ones as they do in the film. And if this film can get even 1% more of us to get tested, then that’s worth any amount of star casting and HBO screentime.
What were your views of ‘The Normal Heart’? Let us know in the comments below.