What’s it about? The forgivably clunky title is spoken by a senior nurse to a junior one as they leave the room of a patient who was just received treatment from them. The patient was dying of AIDS, the focus of Swedish miniseries Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves. Love, life, desolation and death are all explored as we follow a group of gay friends and lovers in 1980s Sweden as AIDS becomes a reality in the lives of them all.
Verdict: In 1980s Stockholm the gay community exists in the shadows, on back streets down which men slowly drive their cars, windows wound down halfway, looking for men to pick up and take home. Old Paul (Simon J. Berger) is at the epicentre of a growing, and later diminishing, group of young men who have escaped to Sweden’s capital in search of the acceptance and sexual expression denied them in their former lives. Paul is an Oscar Wilde-like figure; his wit is sharp, his manner droll and it’s at one of his Christmas parties that Benjamin (Adam Lundgren) and Rasmus (Adam Pålsson) first meet.
At its core Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves is a love story between Benjamin and Rasmus, two young men coming of age and embracing their sexuality. Benjamin is from a devout family of Jehovah’s Witnesses and dedicates his life to preaching the word of the Bible. That is until he knocks on Paul’s door with plans to teach him about God, where instead he’s forced to face what he really is. Rasmus on the other hand comes from a small town, with small town values and when he leaves he doesn’t look back.
We watch the lives of both, from childhood to their awakenings, via flashbacks – through playground beatings and religious indoctrination to the first experiences of sex and the first flourishes of love. At around the age of ten Rasmus is walking with his parents in a forest when a white elk is spotted – Rasmus’s father, condemning those who shoot such beautiful creatures, explains who would do such a thing: “People who don’t like ‘different’. They don’t think it should exist”, a lesson lost on the very same man when his own son who grows up to be “different”.
The happy forged family that congregates around Paul doesn’t last for long. A ‘new plague’ is spreading through the streets, and it’s only gay men dying from it. From the start the narrative is interrupted by scenes from the future in which Rasmus is writhing in agony on a hospital bed or lying in it lifeless. Before better treatments were available AIDS simply killed slowly and painfully – the men must either accept their diagnoses and let the clock run down or take their lives into their own hands. A family of the deceased try to airbrush reality and as Rasmus declines rapidly his family look to do the same thing, even in death he isn’t spared prejudice.
The miniseries was made and set in Sweden, and we see how unflinching, hard-hitting storytelling is done in Scandinavia too. At no point does the narrative take the easy option by looking away or leaning on sentimentality, you’ll be forced to watch, and watch closely, the startling realities of these people living as gay men in the 80s. As the funerals become more frequent we’re taken to another Christmas party at Paul’s; what was once a room full of life and vibrancy is now three men: one dying, two bereaved.
Final Words: Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves manages to pack a real emotional punch and remain unsentimental in its telling of a couple’s joyous beginnings and harrowing conclusions. Both leading and supporting performances are faultless across the board, while the direction is inspired. At times the stark and brutal realism of the subject matter can make it hard to watch, but you’ll be glad you did.
Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves is released on DVD on 26 December 2013.