Since it debuted in 1985, Larry Kramer's incendiary play The Normal Heart has first and foremost been associated with rage. Its central character, Ned Weeks—a thinly veiled but egoless version of Kramer—channels the kind of blistering fury that ignites everything in its immediate path. Kramer wrote the play before President Reagan had ever publicly acknowledged the existence of AIDS but after several thousand men, a number of whom were his close personal friends, had died of a mysterious "gay cancer." Ned's rage at the apathy and hostility he encounters while trying to publicize the emerging plague is extraordinarily potent, but it still isn't enough.
The Ryan Murphy-directed HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart, airing Sunday at 9 p.m., does its best to channel the intensity of Ned's blinding, uncomprehending anger. Mark Ruffalo offers a tight, deliberately understated turn as someone who, in the midst of what feels like a war, finds true love and then loses it.
But Murphy's unexpectedly rich portrayal of Ned's love affair with Felix (Matt Bomer) ends up eclipsing rage as the defining emblem of the film. If TV doesn't quite have the same potential as theater does for letting an audience tap into Ned's anger, Murphy’s adaptation makes up for it by offering a much more detailed portrait of romance—one of the most emotionally honest depictions of two men falling in love ever seen on television.
Fuelled but not defined by the urgency of the plague around them, Ned and Felix meet, have a painfully awkward first date during which Ned manages to defy most standards for socially acceptable behavior, move in together, and even get "married" in an unofficial ceremony by Felix's hospital bed.
And, yes, they sleep together. In an interview with the New York Times, Kramer alleged that the movie had been held up for so long because of squeamishness about portraying graphic sex scenes; Barbra Streisand, who owned the film rights and intended to play Emma Brookner, the doctor who treats some of the virus's earliest cases, was apparently uncomfortable with the subject. Thank heavens for Murphy, then, who seems to understand how integral sex is to love. He draws raw pathos from Ned and Felix's first night together, making it as much an emotional coupling as a physical one.
As the film opens, Ned is shown on the periphery of gay culture at a rowdy beach party on Fire Island. He's shunned by some for a novel he wrote criticizing promiscuity, but he's also a self-imposed outcast, uncomfortable and socially repressed in a new world of shaved chests, naked sunbathing, and gleaming, cartoonish muscles. When Dr. Brookner (an exceptional Julia Roberts) finally alerts him to the existence of a rare cancer that's destroying the immune systems of gay men in New York, you could uncharitably argue that one reason for Ned's urgent attachment to the cause is his discomfort with the liberated, hypersexualized culture his friends have embraced. Preaching the virtues of abstinence is nothing new for Ned, who wrote in his book that "having so much sex makes love impossible."
It's ironic, therefore, when Felix reminds Ned that they first met in a bathhouse, in a scene Murphy paints like an exquisitely awful '80s porno, complete with shaky camera work, fuzzy graphics, and a tacky synth soundtrack. Back then, a repressed and presumably closeted Ned resisted the idea of love; now, Ruffalo's tense physicality shows how desperately he yearns for it. The power of Bomer's performance is in how believable he makes Felix's attraction to the older, prickly, pathologically awkward Ned. Ruffalo smothers most of his natural charisma with glasses, dowdy tweed jackets, and crankiness, but there's still something about his emotional integrity and slightly battered heart that's deeply appealing.
Bomer's 40-pound weight loss over the course of portraying Felix's decline has been well-publicized, but what's also remarkable throughout the film is how Murphy taps into his American Horror Story experience to show how viscerally AIDS decimated a community. The first man Ned encounters with the disease, in Emma's office, is like a walking zombie, pockmarked with large red scabs all over his face. Later, after Felix has shown Ned the telltale mark on his own foot, he rides the subway and encounters the unsettling sight of a man covered with Kaposi's sarcoma as the lights flicker on and off. It's terrifying. And when Mayor Koch finally agrees to have a proxy meeting with Ned and his fellow activists, it's in an abandoned, subterranean room filled with the wreckage of broken filing cabinets, not unlike somewhere someone might wake up in the Saw franchise.
The performances throughout the film are terrific. There’s The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons as Tommy, a volunteer who saves the rolodex cards of friends who've died, and whose desk drawer becomes a cemetery filled with tiny paper tombstones. There’s Alfred Molina as Ned's wealthy older brother, trying as hard as he can to accept Ned's sexuality. And there’s Roberts as the wheelchair-bound Emma, whose eyes offer glimpses of complexity not necessarily spelled out in Kramer's script. It's Emma who confronts the government, and when a bureaucrat declines her funding request and describes her research as "imprecise and unfocused," her outburst makes even Ned raise his eyebrows.
Ned's last scene shows him on the sidelines, again, as guest of honor at Yale's gay week, after he tried to commit suicide there as an undergrad because he felt so desperate and isolated. As he watches the couples dancing under a canopy of balloons and twinkling lights, he's alone but not lonely, heartbroken but consoled by the existence of love all around him. Ruffalo, crying and smiling at the same time, offers a glimmer of hope amid the more desolate imagery of Tommy's desk drawer, Felix's emaciated frame, and the sneering cruelty of those who did nothing. In an earlier scene, Ned describes Alan Turing as his personal hero: an openly gay man who saved the world and was crucified for it. "That's how I want to be remembered," he says. "As one of the men who won the war."