The Normal Heart is an imperfect yet powerful rendering of Larry Kramer's famed 1985 play, and thankfully, the original material is meaty and emotional enough to essentially overcome the unnecessary dramatic flourishes of its director, Ryan Murphy, who didn't realize that all he needed to do was step back and let the actors speak for themselves.
Assembling a great cast, virtually all of whom turn in wonderful performances, The Normal Heart is set at the onset of the AIDS crisis, in the very early years of the disease, when it was still being labeled as "gay cancer," there was no known treatment and it was only seen to be affecting homosexual men in the large gay communities of major cities like New York and San Francisco. Larry Kramer's play was written in the midst of the crisis and the voice of the protagonist, Ned Weeks, is an angry one, a stand-in for himself as the well known activist and writer of the gay rights movement. Mark Ruffalo plays Ned in the film, and is utterly convincing as the pained and angry rabble rouser, trying desperately to shout his case from every rooftop and at anyone who will listen, which at the time, was close to no one. Fear and hatred plagued the straight world, made up of indifferent (or closeted) politicians who didn't want to come anywhere near the sick and dying, like the majority of the public in the early 1980's. Even the medical community had little hope to offer, seeing how difficult it was to get enough research funding to simply identify the virus that was only seen to be affecting those members of society who were already outcast.
Julia Roberts plays Emma, a doctor and ally of Ned's with polio, who's just as angry as he is but incapable of doing much except prolonging the lives of the sick, who nearly all perish in her hospital rooms, with many of her own staff afraid to go near them, even to bring their meals. Ned starts the Gay Men's Health Crisis, an organization intended to put pressure on the government to help the affected, but ends up doing many of the similar tasks that go along with consoling the dying men, much to Ned's protestations throughout the film. The other men involved include Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons and Joe Mantello, each of whom get their chance to shine with the dramatic monologues imbued throughout the script, even if Ryan Murphy can't help himself from going nuts with the camera during some of the speeches, thus robbing the actors of what should have been urgent, quiet spotlight moments for each of them. A major standout among this cast is Matt Bomer as Felix, a New York Times reporter who Ned gets involved with, but who succumbs to the disease over the course of the film, and it's he who feels the most developed as a character and whose arc over the movie leaves you the most heartbroken. He goes from a confident, smart and charming young man with his whole future ahead of him, to a broken down vessel of wasted potential, making you feel as awful as Ned and his friends at the generation of lives lost due to the public's indifference and lack of outcry. If the final scene between Felix and Ned doesn't pummel you into a submission of tears then you truly are made of stone.
Yet even with the powerful material and well cast actors on hand (although Julia Roberts is perhaps a bit distracting as she's made to look as self-consciously unglamorous as possible and the simple inability of someone as famous as her to disappear into a part proves a bit unintentionally amusing when she goes zigzagging around hallways in a wheelchair), Ryan Murphy hamstrings the production with a schizophrenic camera style (especially during the opening Fire Island set sequence) and poorly composed flashback scenes that often are distractions in and of themselves. It has the unfortunate effect of feeling like it should be a TV movie when HBO films are often a cut above that in effort, usually seeming like something that should have easily been in theatrical release (such as last year's Behind the Candelabra, which had Steven Soderbergh's decidedly unheavy-handedness behind the scenes). Still, the actors make it worthwhile, and the feeling and urgency of a subject matter that sometimes seems as though it's been unjustly forgotten in the days when HIV is now treatable and no longer a death sentence, make films that look back on those dark early days a much appreciated tribute to those whose lives were lost. It's a noble effort from all involved and a reminder of the necessity to treat those different from us as fellow human beings in every sense of the word.