Monday, May 26, 2014

The Normal Heart: Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

The Normal Heart offers a stunning look at the early years of the AIDS crisis in New York. Based on the mostly autobiographical 1985 play by Larry Kramer, a co-founder of the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) and prominent AIDS activist featured in How to Survive a Plague, The Normal Heart focuses on Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a gay writer who becomes an outspoken activist as his friends start to die around him and no one seems to care.

Because the story only spans the years of 1981 to 1984, it is a strikingly condensed piece of tragedy, full of confusion, rage, love, and despair. Within half an hour, Ned has gone from having one friend collapse and die in a few weeks, to knowing several gay men with the telltale purple spots of Kaposi's sarcoma that signal their lives are about to end. He partners with Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), a doctor who is single-handedly tackling this puzzling illness among young gay men and trying to get NIH funding so she can figure out what's going on. She is in a wheelchair after contracting polio at the age of five, so she understands what it means to have your life ruined by a dangerous virus. However, she is not gay, and her caustic pleas to gay men to just stop having sex are largely derided. The play brilliantly illustrates the tangled web of gay politics, with older activists angrily declaring they fought for the right to love openly without shame and they now refuse to be cowed by a hypothetically sexually transmitted virus. 

In the meantime, the cautious Ned falls deeply in love with a New York Times writer named Felix (Matt Bomer). Their relationship is a powerful example of the lives and loves that these men are fighting to preserve. They are fully committed to each other, and even though Felix is quiet and closeted, he fully supports his outspoken partner in his fight for education, awareness, and funding. They are a wondrous team, a couple you will root for until the bitter end.

The Normal Heart is a love story but it is also a play about rage. Even though Ned is the focus, every character has a furious monologue, raging against prejudice, raging against this virus, raging against the ceaseless death toll while the world stands idly by. There are vast differences among the various activists' approaches and Ned butts heads with his closeted counterparts or colleagues who would prefer to use diplomacy rather than accusations. It's a fascinating, multi-layered portrayal of the people, beliefs, and politics that came into conflict in this uncertain time. 

I cannot praise the performances of this cast enough, particularly Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer who will make you smile and weep at the depths of Ned and Felix's love. Jim Parsons is incredible as a passionate, big-hearted director of the GMHC and Joe Mantello, who plays an activist working in the public health department and is seeing firsthand how the gay community is being ignored, delivers a particularly stirring speech about his helplessness and uncertainty in this war against a mysterious menace. The dialogue is blistering, compassionate, urgent, and evocative and every actor delivers these lines with the full force and impact they deserve. 

The Normal Heart is powerful and necessary viewing. Even if advances in research and medicine have made HIV/AIDS a chronic illness rather than a certain death sentence, there is still so much further we have to go. It is also a devastating indictment of how homophobia and prejudice allowed thousands of men to die in horrific circumstances. This still happens today and The Normal Heart is a much-needed reminder that we need to continue to rage against injustice and fight for equality, compassion, and love. 

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