'Normal' on HBO stands out


By the current standards of television, the HBO made-for-TV movie Normal is anything but.

Against a backdrop of loud, cruel and crass "reality" programs that mock institutions like marriage, while featuring people who exemplify the truism "beauty is skin deep," shines Normal, a quiet, tender and uplifting film about unconditional love. Normal is the kind of program that makes HBO a special place on the television landscape.

The film, which airs tomorrow night at 10, opens with Roy and Irma Applewood (Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Lange), celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary at a local Rotary Club in small-town Iowa. In the middle of the party, Roy collapses.

His blackout is related to stress-induced headaches caused by the secret he's been keeping for 20 years: He feels that he is a woman trapped in a man's body and wants to have a sex change. The only person more shocked than the minister to whom Roy confesses these feelings is his wife. Happy 25th, Irma.

What follows is one of the most poignant, funny and uncompromisingly brave love stories to grace television this season. Wilkinson and writer/director Jane Anderson (The Baby Dance) imbue Roy with a sense of dignity that is hard to resist. But what makes watching his determined journey across the great divide of gender such an illuminating and heartfelt experience is Lange's performance.

Irma's role is the more complicated one in this tango of transgendered identity, because she is the character through whose eyes the audience will see and judge Roy. Again, much of the praise goes to Anderson for a resonant script and sensitive direction, but it is Lange who takes viewers through a kaleidoscope of emotions ranging from anger and a sense of betrayal, to repulsion, hate, grief, amusement, acceptance and finally to a deeper and more genuine love for the person she married.

Lange doesn't try to dazzle with big, bold, dramatic mood swings. Instead she steadily explores the emotional life of her character inch by nuanced inch as Irma sees her marriage and sense of security turned inside out. Lange's performance is a study in emotion precisely etched on the screen - whether it's casual bemusement at Roy's sense of fashion, or desperate rage at the loss of his masculine presence.

Normal, which is based on Anderson's stageplay, Looking For Normal, is an example of the made-for-television movie as art. As such, it asks big questions - in this case, about the nature of love, long-term relationships and the ways in which societies construct notions of normalcy and gender identity.

But most of all, Normal stirs the soul with some of the answers it provides and the heroic choices its characters make.

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