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Friday, 21 December 2018

Movie Review: The Normal Heart (2014)

The Normal Heart
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina, Julia Roberts
Genre: TV Drama

Plot: A gay activist attempts to raise HIV and AIDS awareness during the early 1980s

'A Heart That Beats Loudly & Strongly' 

Directed by Ryan Murphy who gave us 2010's repellent, Eat, Pray, Love - or should that be 'Barf' (& my most loathed Julia Roberts film, ever), The Normal Heart is the second collaboration involving Murphy and Julia Roberts, 4 years following on; only here the material is far superior, the characters are far more likeable and empathetic and the film is 10 times better than the previous offering. A TV movie adaptation of a play originally created by Larry Kramer, the plot is set in the 1980s amidst the AIDS pandemic and yet to this day, this disease has still not gone away: that AIDS still takes and claims millions of lives. Despite the fact that it doesn't get as much publicity and press attention as it did over 3 decades ago, that isn't to say that society and the world are HIV/AIDS-free. Far from it. 

Surprisingly, The Normal Heart was initially dismissed when it hit New York floorboards but later on, it has been praised for celebrating love, but also for engaging on bigotry, discrimination and highlighting death and the pent-up frustrations and anger felt by those concerned. When Ned's new lover, Felix is stricken with the deadly disease, Ned is adamant that with the assistance of doctor Emma and several activists, he will find the answers he wants and in demanding the help he intends to get. 

There is nothing dated about this film, it feels current, but also Ryan Murphy's take on AIDS and the people suffering from it is far bolder, riskier, but also genuine, as far as a realistic drama on this topic and gay people go. There is nothing neutered here, either: it's straight to the point, at times bleak, I could feel by watching this that as a gay man himself, Murphy projected that homosexual lifestyle that didn't dwell on stereotypes and tropes. Whilst the brilliant Philadelphia with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington became the first Hollywood movie to address AIDS and present a story with a homosexual lead character, it definitely had that broader, mainstream-esque, glossy feel to it. The Normal Heart is its indie equivalent and is just as impressive and equally compelling: it's human, a gruelling journey that doesn't and chooses not to shy away from the realities of AIDS and depicting and presenting the lives of the gay community. 

Julia Roberts's character is physician, Emma Brookner who has German roots and in a role akin to Robin Williams's Malcolm Sayer in Penny Marshall's 1990 effort, Awakenings, she delivered an emphatic dramatic performance and one that is up there with her absolute best alongside Erin Brockovich. Ravaged by Polio and confined to a wheelchair, Emma has been on the case from day one and sees to it that something is done to curb this epidemic. The main highlight of Roberts's turn is Emma's epic rant against the National Institute of Health Officials, who are too stubborn and naive in their refusal to fund her research efforts. That scene had me standing up from my seat and in awe of Julia Roberts's startling turn- both controlled and undeniably compelling, it brought back memories of her rant as Erin in Erin Brockovich towards the end of the film. It seems that the older and maturer she gets, the better that Julia's performances have become. Well, but for Eat, Pray, Love. There are also impressive and best onscreen turns of Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, although I did feel that Jim Parsons was a little underplayed. 

Main star Mark Ruffalo displays one of his absolute best performances as a campaigner, Ned and his efforts to bring the issue of AIDS to the forefront. Ned battles on and on, regardless of the obstacles and barriers being put in front of him and sees to it that gays are seen and heard and in finding a cure for AIDS. Usually, perhaps, a guy like Ned would come across as desperate and to the point, annoying, yet Ruffalo manages to make him impassionate and concerned as he is. The Normal Heart doesn't shy away from reality and its intentions as a film and pulls no punches as each scene becomes more gutwrenching, sad and profound. & whilst this is no uplifting ride from start to finish, this is an impressive and extremely well-done ensemble drama with pretty much every cast member revelling in their roles. 

Whilst it can be argued that Ryan Murphy has never been an acclaimed and crafty director and whose efforts usually underwhelm and disappoint, here he pulled it off. The film's message is served well by the main four of Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo, Taylor Kitsch and Matt Bomer. 


Pros +

- Incredible performances from across the board mostly

- A film on Aids/HIV and gay people without resorting to stereotyping

- Another terrific and understated Julia Roberts performance

- An effective and profound drama

Cons -

- Could have been a little more intense 

- Plot is a little thin 

Final Verdict:

Although there isn't much in the way of plot in this premise of a man finding himself heard by millions to highlight a problematic issue, the all-around performances really give it that edge it needed; without Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo, I don't think The Normal Heart would be as potent and confounding in places as it is, particularly for a medical-based drama; it draws its tower of strength from the likes of these A-list actors who give it their all.

And the end result is fantastic and equitably engaging, The Normal Heart has tons of heart, and more besides.

Admirers of Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia and Penny Marshall's Awakenings ought to definitely seek this one out.


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