sun 21/09/2014

Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves, BBC Four | TV reviews, news & interviews

Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves, BBC Four

Poignant Swedish drama depicts the early days of AIDS

Until the party stops: central characters Rasmus (Adam Pålsson, left) and Benjamin (Adam Lundgren)BBC/SVT/Peter Cederling

The bleak opening of Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves is set in a nursing home where a man is dying of AIDS, tended by nurses who themselves know next to nothing of the disease. The phrase one nurse utters as a warning gives this Swedish drama its title: any human contact, even if it’s intended as the smallest act of kindness, risks passing on the infection. Simon Kaijser’s three-part drama will show us the varieties of response across society to these extreme new circumstances.

It begins in the Swedish countryside, where Rasmus (Adam Pålsson) has grown up happily, surrounded by loving family and the kind of childhood incidents that wouldn’t seem out of place in My Life as a Dog. But like the mysterious white elk that interrupts the family’s forest rambling one day, Rasmus has grown up different – he’s gay. And at 19, in the first flower of his curly-haired, innocent beauty, he’s raring to get away to Stockholm, nominally to study, but much more to explore the scene in the capital city, which he starts the moment he gets off the train.

they include some screen moments that are hard to watch for their emotional intensity

One of the first contacts he makes in this sexually free (and sometimes explicit) society –  AIDS has not yet begun to inhibit behaviour – is the camp and cynical Paul (Simon J. Berger). He’s the centre of a group of close friends that has formed itself, we feel, to replace their actual families; they congregate at Paul’s hedonistic Christmas dinners (pictured, below right), and as time passes, and AIDS wreaks its toll, we see their numbers dwindle.

The first time Rasmus attends he’s already lost much of his shyness, something you could hardly say of the new friend he makes there, Benjamin (Adam Lundgren). The latter’s background more than explains that reticence: Benjamin’s a Jehovah’s Witness, whose life to date has been centred around his community and his duties knocking on doors to try to interest others in his faith. When Benjamin knocks on Paul’s door, a different kind of conversion takes place: the latter, rich in the wisdom of the world, shocks the young man by his accurate verdict on Benjamin’s hitherto barely-explored sexuality.

That meeting of the two young men is the central point of Don’t Ever Wipe Tears…: we’ll see their relationship grow, with its joys and tribulations, and as their contacts with their (blood) families recede, the important of their quasi-family and community will increase. The details of different strata of Swedish society, from the almost wilful innocence of provincial life through the enclosed world of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to the sexual freedom of Stockholm, are beautifully observed. Though the subject itself is one we know well enough from elsewhere (Angels in America springs to mind, though there’s no sense of wider political activism here), it’s propelled forwards by a powerful emotional truth. Just because the story's been told before doesn't reduce its impact.

There’s no doubt about the direction the drama will be taking: after this first episode, “Love”, the follow-ups are titled “Disease” and “Death” respectively. They include some screen moments that are hard to watch for their emotional intensity, as we see how parts of Swedish society, for all the liberality that we often associate with that country, remained conservative and small-minded when faced with the phenomenon of AIDS. “It happened here in this city… like a war fought in peacetime,” the narratorial voice remembers as each episode opens, and casualties will be high. The only consolation, if that’s in any way the right word, is that Don’t Ever Wipe Tears… treats its characters and their situations with respect, according them dignity even when life has done its utmost to take that away.

The details of different strata of Swedish society are beautifully observed

rating

4

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Comments

Agreed, Tom, it's a fine and

Agreed, Tom, it's a fine and serious piece of work, though never over-earnest. Any correspondences with Angels in America only point out, as does the narrator, how different Stockholm then was from New York. Perhaps the two leads are almost too beautiful to be true, but that will have - indeed, in the later scenes we've already witnessed, already has - devastating consequences. Everything rings true so far.

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