Tony Kushner's Broadway play was subtitled 'A Gay Fantasia On National Themes' which is an accurate description of this ambitious, occasionally delirious and compelling adaptation. Like director Nichols' previous work - The Graduate Catch 22 - it's a deft blend of the intimate and the epic, its characters' personal trajectories leading the drama into broader, more political territory. Kushner's script ensures the issues - sex, death, race, religion - are confronted head-on, but there are also fevered trips into the surreal, drug-induced hallucinations and set-pieces so gloriously overblown they border on the kitsch.
Six hours long but divided into two, episode one is entitled Millennium Approaches, and it introduces the major players. Ruthless lawyer Roy Cohn (Pacino) is dying of AIDS but refuses to admit his homosexuality - not through shame exactly, but because "homosexuals have no clout". Prior Walter (Kirk) is also dying of AIDS and though his lover Louis (Shenkman) is consumed with liberal guilt, he leaves Prior anyway. Joe (Wilson) is the young Mormon lawyer whom Cohn attempts to corrupt, and he too struggles with his homosexuality. Harper (Parker) is Joe's fragile wife and a combination of Valium-addiction and sexual frustration leads her to hallucinate a mystical travel agent who transports her to Antarctica via a fridge.
It sounds elaborate, and it is. Yet every performance is expertly judged and it's hard to remember the last time Pacino demonstrated anything like this level of charisma. Kushner's script is florid at times, but his linguistic flights of fancy emphasise the sense of hyper-reality and when he cuts loose - in a fantasy sequence featuring Simon Callow and Michael Gambon as ancient English ghosts, for example - the results are exhilarating and blackly comic.