Is it possible to help find a cure for a mysterious illness and still maintain a healthy relationship with your partner? That's part of the premise behind HBO's "The Normal Heart," which had one man passionately struggle to find a cure for a disease that was killing his friends. Luckily, the movie seemed to balance the social issues of the time period with the timeless ones of a love affair ending in tragedy to make viewers identify with the story.
"The Normal Heart" followed the start of the AIDS epidemic in 1981 when no one knew what to make of it. Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) as an inexperienced gay man trying to find true love in a time when that type of love wasn't always so easy to find. During one summer trip, Ned began to experience how the AIDS virus was going to greatly impact the gay community when one of his friends Craig Donner (Jonathan Groff) began showing symptoms. Craig wasn't the first of Ned's friends to be afflicted, and he wasn't going to be the last. He ended up dying in a rather rapid pace, which devastated his partner Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch) who was still afraid to openly express his feelings in public for fear of the consequences. As time passed, Bruce also ended up losing another partner to AIDS and witnessed how society treated the still undefined illness. Ned started to openly speak out about what was happening to his friends and loved ones, but he expressed his feelings in such a way that it ended up alienating his remaining friends and his relationship with his brother Ben (Alfred Molina). Luckily, Ned found true love with New York Times reporter Felix Turner (Matt Bomer) that made him believe in a bright future. Unfortunately, Felix started showing symptoms and his health began to deteriorate. That made Ned want to fight even harder with the help of Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) who understood suffering as she came down with Polio at a young age and was forever changed by it. She wanted to help find a cure before it was too late, but she had little help from the government. As the world started to take notice, Ned and Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons) continued to attend memorials for their friends and loved ones, even when it got much too personal. Will Ned be able to make any headway before it's too late?
In terms of questions, the biggest one remained as to why it took so long to get a chance at becoming a movie because the story was timeless and still relevant since there still isn't a cure for AIDS more than three decades later. It also showcased how that most illnesses don't get properly diagnosed until the right doctors and activists help make things happen. The movie also clearly demonstrated that Director Ryan Murphy worked very hard to give Larry Kramer's story the proper format it needed to be told to make it worth watching without going off into the great extremes that he was known for in the past. It also helped that Kramer was involved in making the movie go from Broadway to the small screen. The story had a strong start that managed to set up what the early 80s was like and how people enjoyed themselves without thinking of the consequences. It also helped that the film picked fitting songs from the 80s to help score what was going on, such as ones from Roxy Music and Patrice Rushen. The movie itself managed to depict how AIDS impacted the U.S. socially and personally without paying too much emphasis on either to not alienate viewers. Sadly, the movie very devastated ending was slightly marred by one extra scene that took away from the emotional loss of a major character. What would've salvaged the final scene was a way to tie it in with Ned's tragedy as viewers got a glimpse of Ned's future in a way that wasn't too rushed. Overall, the movie paid proper respect to Kramer's play and managed to give it an extra emotional kick for HBO viewers, which is no small feat.
As for breakout performances, the movie was full of unforgettable performances throughout that will likely earn most of them Emmy nominations this fall. Roberts and Ruffalo will likely lead the pack as they gave very strong performances as two very passionate activists who sometimes let their emotions get the better of them. Even though she wasn't the main character, Roberts managed to make the most of her somewhat limited screentime. She helped provide a different context to the story as her character tried unsuccessfully to remain emotionally separate from her dying patients. The character was somewhat of departure from her usually upbeat roles, but she made the most of the dramatic material. She also shared a brief moment of levity as her character shared a brief dance with Ruffalo's Ned before reality set in once again. Ruffalo had the more challenging aspect of the movie because he was the main focus that pulled both the social and personal stories. He also managed to make Ned both a villain and an anti-hero in his aggressive approach in making people unaware of the early stages of AIDS. He also got to display Ned's own personal heartbreak as he watched Bomer's Felix wither in front of him at a very quick pace. Ruffalo managed to best demonstrate Ned's passion for his cause as he worked extra hard to take care of Felix, even when his heart was slowly breaking in the process. One example would be when he broke down after he had an emotional outburst when Felix wanted to give up. Ruffalo's strongest scene came towards the end when he realized that his fighting wasn't going to save Felix or many of his friends. It was heartbreaking to watch Ruffalo's Ned say goodbye to Bomer's Felix because viewers were invested in their on-screen relationship from the very start. Ned and Felix's story also provided viewers with a direct emotional context to the AIDS crisis as they saw their relationship from beginning to end. It also helped that Bomer and Ruffalo had a believable on-screen rapport that gave their on-screen relationship more credibility. Of course, Bomer definitely deserved an honorable mention because he managed to choose a relationship that was a huge departure from his usual charmer small screen roles. He also went through a shocking on-screen transformation that will likely earn him some awards recognition when the time comes.
"The Normal Heart" premiered on May 25th at 9:00 PM on HBO. Check your local listings for future airings.
Verdict: The movie was given its proper due in balancing a very serious subject matter with an even more touching love story that gave the story the right emotional heft all the way to the very end.
TV Movie Score: 4 out of 5 stars
1 Star (Mediocre)
2 Stars (Averagely Entertaining)
3 Stars (Decent Enough to Pass Muster)
4 Stars (Near Perfect)
5 Stars (Gold Standard)