This is not a real review of ‘The Normal Heart’ having spent the last four years writing about AIDS and theatre I’m too invested for that.
I’ll admit I was wary. As anyone is about a new adaptation of something they love. I’m wary about new stagings of it, but I’m even more wary about transposing it to a new medium. I was also wary about the team behind it. On one hand HBO were producing it. The team that did the seemingly impossible in bringing Angels in America to screen so successfully. Alongside this Larry Kramer was writing the screenplay adaptation of his play. To my mind nobody else could do it. Larry knows his work, Larry also knows film. On the other hand, the director was Ryan Murphy. Known for ‘Glee’ Murphy is not the first name that crops up on an ideal directors list for anything, not least The Normal Heart. In Murphy’s defense the list of directors I’d have been happy with right away is very short. Also in Murphy’s defense I quite enjoyed the first season of Glee. However I feel he also owes me £8.50 and two hours of my life for the Glee film.
So I was wary. Casting was announced and I was wary. Could Mark Ruffalo carry it? I knew nothing about him really. Supporting cast had some good people. Jim Parsons could do it, he did it on stage. The trouble with knowing what stage performances have done with the role, means nobody is ever going to quite fit. With the exception of Joe Mantello. Because he’s an exception to every rule.
But the trouble with something tranposing from stage to screen is that feeling of a stage version, of a stage performance. You can’t perform it the same on stage, therefore it will be altered. And how to react to that?
On the whole I thought the film was good. I’d rather have this version than no version. That sounds like a back handed compliment. It isn’t, I genuinely think this is a good version of The Normal Heart. If it gets Larry Krammer’s story to more people, if it preserves it on film, I’m happy with that. And actually it translates to screen well in Murphy’s hands. Most of the changes he made, I was happy with for the sake of the different medium.
And film does add elements, it gives visuals and fleshes out a story in a way that’s impossible on stage. It also makes the performances more visceral, more real. On stage it’s impossible to realistically take an actor from healthy to dying in two hours, we suspend our disbelief and use tricks to make it so, but we know they will bounce on stage healthy again at the curtain call. The exception ironically being Stephen Spinella’s performance in Angels in America that set the rumour mill into overdrive about his health. But on film, you can feel like a character is dying, intimately see the affects of their illness that are only alluded to or representative on stage. There is something to be said for that head on collision with the affects of AIDS that film provides. On stage I don’t feel it less, but the physical realities on film are hard to get away from. That AIDS is being depicted in graphic detail on film is still important, as is the explicit, overt depiction of gay sexuality on film is also an important aspect. It’s different on film, no doubt, but not worse. There is only one scene, which I won’t spoil, that I felt was lessened for seeing it realised. On stage it’s a story that’s told, and one that hits not so much the heart as the gut. It’s visceral in it’s telling, and actually what my imagination always conjured is far worse than seeing it realised. Some things are more powerful unseen.
The performances overall were strong. Again, what I want from a portrayal of Ned Weeks and what the average audience needs are two different things. But Mark Ruffalo hit the mark on almost every important beat. And his dialect coach is a genius-to the point I had to pause the film to comment on how accurate his voice work was, and for that if nothing else I give him high marks. If I closed my eyes I could hear Larry Kramer.
One or two cast members I had issue with, Julia Roberts in a difficult role admittedly just didn’t gel for me. Neither did Taylor Kitsch, again in a difficult role. I don’t think either actor was bad, just not quite there, and probably simply miscast. Ruffalo aside, the stand out performance for me was Jim Parsons. He was no surprise having seen him as Tommy in the stage version, I knew he could do it. But faced with the version on film, and some slightly altered scenes, Parson’s brought more depth the to role, and was for me an emotional anchor to the piece. Parson’s casting, and performance in the role of Tommy hopefully helped audiences who were finding it hard to connect with Ruffalo’s Ned Weeks (not Ruffalo’s fault, at times Ned/Kramer is hard to connect with at times). The rest of the supporting cast on the whole were also good. Points particuarlly to Joe Mantello, who is always brilliant but pulled at my heart strings because of his long connection with this play, and others like it. Similarly a cameo from Stephen Spinella was enough to break my heart in the opening minutes.
And did The Normal Heart break mine? Not as much as the stage version is the honest answer. But, I say this with the caveat that maybe it will more on repeat viewings. I was on edge, waiting for the answer to the question ‘will it be good’ that I didn’t engage as fully as I might have. So I reserve judgement fully. I do know that there were moments where I felt something breaking. When I saw Stephen Spinella yes, but also when Tommy spoke at the funeral, when Ned takes care of Feliz, and many other moments. The moment that really got me however was the ‘I belong to a culture speech’ Ned Weeks says the following;
‘I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E. M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjold These are not invisible men.’
As the speech goes on, I truly felt the emotion of the piece. What I felt were Larry Kramer’s words. Because through all this, it’s Kramer’s writing that still rings true, that still hits where it hurts and is still so utterly desperate after all these years.
Much was made, when the film came out, of why? why do we need this film? why now? To answer the last question first, is perhaps to answer all three. Because it took this long to get here. Because it’s taken years of fighting to get a film made. Because still there is reluctance to address these issues, to commit them to film and air them in public. Because while it is fiction, Kramer’s play is also historical record. Why do we need the film then? because despite this historical track record things still remain a certain way. Things have changed yes, for people with AIDS, for gay people. But not nearly enough. And the fight that Kramer depicts still goes on, for recognition, for support. AIDS is still an issue, in America in Britain, all around the world. Finally why make this film? well to remember those involved. To remember what Larry Kramer and his friends did, and why they had to do it. Why do we make art about any historical event? because in remembering someday someone will hopefully learn. In this case history is not quite over anyway. We still need people like Larry Kramer to shout.