The Normal Heart

June 21, 2014

The demand for reverence to be shown towards Ryan Murphy’s fluffy, histrionic film of The Normal Heart has led critics to approach it with kid gloves, where the real life inspiration, and not the actual work at hand, is heaped with praise. Playwright Larry Kramer adapts his own drama from stage to screen so that it’s a bitter reflection on a time passed, missing the incendiary rage that acted as a call to arms for a community during the early years of the AIDS crisis. A time when thousands of gay men were dying and the political players, both gay and straight, either did nothing or faffed idealistically about.

Kramer’s decision to sit on the project until he was paid what he believed he was due, has cost the piece its political capital. He may have raised these issues first, but thirty years have passed since he wrote The Normal Heart and it has been surpassed by It’s My Party, Longtime Companion, How to Fight a Plague, Angels in America and And the Band Played On, both artistically and as a chronicle of the disease and America’s response to it.

We open in the early 80s, pictured as always, like a tighty-whitey clad how-down, with dated disco, bulging banana hammocks, glistening abs and thrusting, bare asses. Then there is a troubling cough, leading to a collapse, leading to lesions that wouldn’t be out-of-place on 28 Days Later. Whispers and insinuations become ignored howls of indignation, as underwritten bit-players are wheeled by on trolleys, all building to a well-developed characters death which is meant to teach us something.

But in spite of its early sense of licentiousness, sex and decadence have only a stated sense of importance. One which a generation who grew up far from the shadow of Stonewall will have no understanding of. And Murphy’s inability to express the communities fear, that it was being shoved back into a closet it had only been legally liberated from, does a great disservice to the complexity of the sexual politics of the day and the dramatic thrust of the movie.

In staying so faithful to his biased source, the movies ability to capture the conflicting interests of the men and women who set up Gay Men’s Health Crisis is reduced. When everyone is done shouting over one another, its only Kramer’s avatar, Ned Weeks, whose voice is heard.We are told that the way the gay community responded to the epidemic was wrong, but it fails to explore why. And aside from a few cat calls, it doesn’t properly establish how the community viewed Weeks- as in real life they viewed Kramer, to be the Paddy Manning of his day, a suspect character who is hard to trust.

It’s just a terribly constructed piece of television. The busy direction saps all the power out of two crucial monologues delivered by Taylor Kitsch and Joe Montello, as if Murphy didn’t trust the truth conveyed in the words to stand alone. It’s stage roots are constantly on show, like a bad dye job, in a script where every character here has their moment of hysteria , a chance to turn puce and vent about how “they are letting us die and they don’t even care”. Every second line is a platitude or an insult that acts as a gateway to some forcefully stressed point, with Julia Roberts wheeled out (literally as a doctor suffering from Polio) to sprout the hardened facts and figures, when required.

It ignores the fact that we come to this movie with our foreknowledge of treatments and defined diagnosis and red ribbon fundraisers. Nothing is done to capture the confusion, panic, fear and paranoia of the time in a manner that isn’t explicitly vocalised by a character. Proof, if it were even needed after The New Normal shitspree, that Ryan Murphy simply doesn’t have the cinematic intelligence to get to grips with nuance of a topic beyond an issue of the week generallness.

It’s also disheartening that yet another film about the AIDS crisis focuses on the actions of a group of rich, white men and-in this case a solitary Lesbian, Danielle Ferland’s Estelle, though even she seems like a rebel from the planet Lesbos, who turns her back on her own kind who claim that “they (gay men) never did anything for us.”

The fact that Murphy lets this quote hang unchallenged plays into accusations that movie makers have whitewashed the AIDS epidemic to be a problem afflicted on white men, solved by white men. A claim not disproved by having BD Wong once more hover in the background as a mute, ineffective token to diversity.

The fault is not just in our over-rated TV stars, but in our critics, who seem so enamoured to the worthiness of such projects that they have forgotten to examine the piece at hand. The Normal Heart, as a film, needed to illuminate, not reiterate, and here it bangs despondently on like an after-school special.


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