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First Look: The Normal Heart

In the mid-1980s, as a swathe of gay men in New York were cut down by HIV – then referred to by many names, but initially, at least, as a strain of gay "cancer" – playwright Larry Krameryes put pen to paper and poured out his frustration with the inertia of the medical establishment, the city and, indeed, sections of the gay community itself.

What came from that was The Normal Heart, a provocative play that took its audience into the confusion and calamity of the time. Under the directorial guiding hand of Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) it now comes to television, loaded with big names and, curiously, a 30-year-old message that is still, somehow, eerily relevant.

The most striking thing about The Normal Heart is the calbre of its cast. It seems natural enough: the play has drawn wide acclaim and, despite some delays in getting it to the screen, fulfils on the promise that great actors will ultimately always go where the great writing is.

Although the story is not truly fragmented, it does thread together a series of characters and situations, including Dr Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) who is on to the problem early, but cannot get the medical establishment to follow her, Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Felix (Matt Bomer), a gay couple who must confront the disease, and Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons), a young man who is losing friends to HIV and, like the others, is confounded by the glacial speed with which everyone is responding to what is clearly an emerging health crisis.

Murphy's direction is solid, if characteristically jagged, and at times fights to keep up with the cast, who deliver some career-defining moments in this benchmark television drama. Bomer is a revelation in the role of Felix, Parsons delivers an emotionally devastating performance – a universe away from television comedy, where audiences know him best – and Roberts completely owns every frame she occupies. Little surprise there: she is not a movie star without good reason.

The Normal Heart is not dense with story; rather it carries a mother lode of conversations: heated exchanges, arguments and stunning orations that would have been called, in another century, soliloquies. If it does anything, it reminds us powerfully of how close failure and triumph sit in relation to one another, and, ultimately, what an astonishingly great writer Kramer is.

The Normal Heart will air later this year in Australia.