The Normal Heart (2014)

June being Pride Month, I finally decided to watch an LGBTQ+ film that has been on my list for a very long time, Ryan Murphy's The Normal Heart. If you know me, then you know that I never read plots, and I went in assuming it was a gay romance starring Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer (please don't ask me where this notion came from). It took me less than five minutes to realise the film would be so much more than that, and it indeed was — a tough, brutally honest, and incredibly emotional film about the tragedy of AIDS. 

The film opens in the summer of 1981 as Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), an openly gay writer from New York, travels to Long Island to celebrate the birthday of a friend, Craig (Jonathan Groff), with his fellow gay friends. Everyone is having fun without a care in the world, enjoying sex and their freedom — even Ned, who is shy and introverted compared to the others, eventually gives in. They don't even worry too much when Craig collapses on the beach one day and struggles to blow the candles on his cake. 

On his way back, Ned comes across a New York Times article on a new cancer affecting gay men which leads him to Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), a doctor who notices a new disease spreading around her gay patients. She asks him to help her raise awareness of it within the gay community and, after a rocky start, he co-founds the Gay Men's Health Crisis organization with his friends Bruce (Taylor Kitsch), Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons) and Mickey Marcus (Joe Mantello), and starts fighting to expose the truth about the epidemic to a city and nation in denial.  

In the meantime, Ned approaches Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), a gay reporter at the New York Times, to enlist his help, and, while Felix won't help him, they end up falling in love. 

Written by Larry Kramer — and based on his play of the same name —, The Normal Heart tells a heartbreaking, tragic story of a community that was ignored when they needed help because of their outward differences — even Ned's straight brother Ben (Alfred Molina) gives merely passive support, and, during a confrontation, comes across as homophobic as he won't admit to Ned that, while their sexuality is different, they were born the same. It is also a story that showcases the importance of understanding different cultures and accepting them and giving them equal rights. 

It also tells a beautiful yet tragic love story between two men with a different background — Ned is open about his sexuality and yet he's emotionally repressed and prefers nameless one-night stands to relationships; Felix has an ex-wife and a son he is not allowed to see, and yet he has never denied himself to love and commit with men. A flaw with the script is that it should have allowed the relationship to be developed on-screen rather than it being in the background. The romance still manages to be effective but it would have been nicer to see their love grow slowly. 

There are parts of the film that are specifically written to pull at your heartstrings for a dramatic effect — Jim Parsons's speech at the funeral is the first that comes to my mind, and it is heartbreaking and powerful, and really reminds us that these deaths should not go unnoticed; another is the ordeal Bruce goes through when his boyfriend (Finn Wittrock) dies as the hospital doctors refuse to examine him and issue a death certificate and throw the body out with the garbage. These moments, however, never feel out of place and they only go to reinforce the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. 

The Normal Heart will have you glued to the screen right from the start, and it will keep your focus till the very last minute as it gracefully develops its story. Murphy's direction is great, and the handheld camera, while it's a bit distracting at times, helps to make the drama feel more intimate. The score perfectly fits the film, and the song choices make some scenes more powerful and emotional — I just can't shake off my mind sick people dancing to Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive, and Simon & Garfunkel's The Only Living Boy in New York is perfect at the end. 

At last but not least there's the cast who delivers excellent performances. Mark Ruffalo brings so much passion and energy to the role and captures very well the anger and frustration gay men were feeling. Matt Bomer gives a devastating performance as Felix — while it was shocking to see a healthy, beautiful young man transform into a sick, dying old man, it's the emotions he brings on the screen that will break you. Jim Parsons also gives a strong performance and proves he's capable of handling dramatic roles as good as he does comedy. Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, Joe Mantello, and Taylor Kitsch also provide great support. 

Ultimately, The Normal Heart is a must watch as it is a powerful film that shows how difficult it was for gay people at the beginning of this now treatable disease. 


  1. Oh, I'm so glad you reviewed this! I didn't avoid it on purpose but like you, I assumed it was just another romcom and just never got round to it. Definitely going to give it a watch now!