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‘Normal Heart’ transcends time in superb HBO adaptation

By David Wiegand
San Francisco Chronicle

‘The Normal Heart’

9 p.m. Sunday on HBO

Watching Ryan Murphy’s HBO adaptation of “The Normal Heart” isn’t always easy, but there are reasons you should watch – millions of them, in fact.

You should watch the 132-minute film, premiering Sunday, because “The Normal Heart” seethes with rage, truth and love in every single performance by an A-list cast. You should watch because Larry Kramer’s play is so much more than an agitprop relic from the early years of AIDS – it is a great play that has become an even greater television film.

Kramer first saw his play performed in 1985. At the time, it was considered an important work, but viewed more in terms of its advocacy than as great theater. The play made enough of an impact to spark a discussion of adapting it for film or TV, but for nearly 30 years, nothing happened.

One reason for that was doubt that a theatrical film about gay men dying of AIDS could make money. Another was the growing misperception that AIDS was no longer the public health and political issue it was in the years before medical advances made it possible to live with the virus.

Ryan Murphy clearly saw that “The Normal Heart” was not trapped in the amber of a few brief years in the early 1980s. His film, with an adaptation by Kramer, recognizes that “The Normal Heart” tells a human story far beyond both its subject matter and the time in which it is set.

In 1980 and ’81, a few cases of a previous unknown disease began popping up in New York among gay men. News stories about it were either ignored or buried by most newspapers, making them easy to overlook.

Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) is an abrasive activist-slash-writer who tries to rally gay men toward awareness of the growing health crisis and lobbies in vain for the New York Times to give the issue appropriate coverage.

He finds a powerful ally in Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), whose childhood battle with polio has left her in a wheelchair as an adult but has also taught her that health crises demand urgent and focused responses.

As Ned steps up pressure on the Times, he meets a lifestyle writer for the paper named Felix Turner (Matt Bomer) who becomes his lover.

Murphy’s film captures so much about this moment in history, not the least of which is how AIDS would politicize gay men and, in many ways, lay the groundwork for the growing acceptance of LGBT people in our own century.

“The Normal Heart” is is emotionally raw, harrowing, and a thing of such singular horrific beauty, it will move you, exhaust you and thrill you.

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