HBO’s ‘The Normal Heart’ will likely break yours

For decades, longtime LGBT and HIV/AIDS activist Larry Kramer wanted to bring his play “The Normal Heart” to life as a feature-length film. At one time Barbra Streisand was looking to direct, but the project eventually wound up in the hands of the incredibly talented and busy Ryan Murphy, with his show “Glee” still going strong and his other project “American Horror Story” returning in the fall. As a gay man, Murphy takes enormous pride in the material of this new project, “The Normal Heart,” and he’s fortunate that HBO has allowed him to make the movie he wanted to make with no compromises.

Before officially debuting May 25, “The Normal Heart” had a special VIP screening May 14 at the Carter Center, presented by HBO, AID Atlanta, Emory University’s Center for AIDS Research, Interfaith Health Program and the Rollins School of Public Health. Panels from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial  Quilt were on display at the event.

Mark Ruffalo, who also executive produced, stars as writer and activist Ned Weeks, the character based on Kramer. We meet him in the early ’80s in New York joining friends at Fire Island. Shortly after, he reads a newspaper article about a disease sweeping through the gay community. His friend Craig Donner (“Looking’s” Jonathan Groff) dies quickly, and suddenly a nurse—wheelchair-bound polio survivor Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts)—is inundated with patients. Like Ned and his friends, she is trying to understand what is going on. Her suggestion to gay men that they stop having sex doesn’t go over well.

Ned visits Felix Tuner (Matt Bomer), a closeted New York Times reporter, to see what kind of help he can provide. An odd- ball pairing, they nonetheless begin dating each other. Others in Ned’s circle include closeted investment banker Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch) and Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons), a transplant from the South who assists in getting the Gay Men’s Health Crisis going. As the number of deaths is escalating, Ned’s activism grows—and his style is not quiet. He is particularly irate at the perceived-to-be- gay mayor Ed Koch and his nonresponse to the health crisis. Ned butts heads with many, including his own brother Ben (Al- fed Molina).

Murphy has turned Kramer’s ambitious 1985 play into an equally ambitious movie. (Kramer himself adapted the screenplay). If the early scenes seem a little rushed, be patient; the film clicks when Ned and Felix meet. Their relationship is complex and eventually heartbreaking. “The Normal Heart” works sharpest at detailing the confusion and climate of the time, as well as attempts to get respect for the disease and a cure. It certainly makes for compelling drama—and captures an era when a lot more LGBT people were closeted and afraid to be out.

“The Normal Heart” is just over two hours and easily could have been turned into a miniseries or a longer feature. In fact, a sequel is already being discussed.