May 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

Review: 'The Normal Heart' is a sad reminder of days of willful ignorance

Mark Ruffalo, left, and Taylor Kitsch star in the 1980s AIDS drama 'The Normal Heart.' (HBO)

Morally and historically significant, emotionally wrenching and politically terrifying, “The Normal Heart” is more important than artful, and that’s just fine.

Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about a gay activist a whole lot like Larry Kramer trying to awaken the world to the awful impact of AIDS in the early ’80s was a groundbreaking, consciousness-raising work. Now it finally makes it to film, and the result is a portrait of a bygone era that still resonates today.

Mark Ruffalo stars as Ned Weeks, an out gay writer who has been critical of ’70s hedonism even as he’s enjoyed it a bit. In 1981, friends begin coming down with what’s then called “gay cancer.” And they begin dying. For the most part, the gay community and the straight world just choose to ignore the coming plague.

Weeks is outraged, especially after he meets a doctor (Julia Roberts) and realizes how little is known about the disease. He tries to pressure a gay New York Times reporter (Matt Bomer) into writing about it, and even though that effort fails, they become a couple. The film, which can be a bit speechy and repetitive but packs enormous impact, follows their relationship and Weeks’ activism.

Kramer makes it clear Weeks is too obnoxious and pushy to be effective, and yet it is his very obnoxiousness that gets him noticed and heard. The scary lesson here that transcends even AIDS is that given the opportunity, politicians and people in general will just look away from a crisis — climate change, nuclear proliferation, antibiotic overkill, you name it.

Yes, “The Normal Heart” is about gay people of a certain era. But it’s also about all people in all eras. It’s painful to watch. It should be.

'The Normal Heart'

GRADE: B

9 p.m. Sunday

HBO

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