Review: Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves
Please Note: Contains Spoilers
My heart is absolutely shattered. I’m wiping away countless tears and trying to compose myself for this review. It’s proving to be very hard, I assure you. I don’t know how I’ll recover from watching this programmeâ€¦
But the Scandinavians sure know how to make excellent TV.
Yet with the Danish show Borgen now losing its edge (some are saying this and I’ve yet to watch it), it seems Sweden is now taking the limelight. I’m thrilled to point out that along with Arne Dahl, which was on earlier this year, Sweden has produced the best TV programmes I have seen for some time. Sweden has raved about this drama, it beating awards from the likes of The Walking Dead and other US shows. We British can’t compete with their brittle, austere and glowing features that are so defined in their output.
If you have never watched anything in a foreign language with subtitles, then start here. You get very well acquainted with the text as it goes along the bottom of the screen. Don’t be intimated by it. Not everything is made in English. You have my reassurance that the Swedish here is not a barrier, but a pleasant and soft language to listen to. I often found myself repeating a few words from the characters, since some resemble English words and phrases.
The long and awkwardly poetic name of the show is perhaps what would put people off, along with it not being in English (perhaps calling it The White Elk could have been better?). But it’s to show exactly how ignorant, fearful and uneducated people were back then when AIDS reared its hideous head. I still engage in debates with my mother today about STIs, protection and promiscuousness. I never feel I can win an argument about this when the other side has that ‘I told you so!’ mentality that straight people can have about the topic. You can’t stop people having sex, which is why contraception is so important today. Sooner or later AIDS will be eradicated, like smallpox and other diseases and viruses. That much is certain.
Hard to believe Angels In America was on ten years ago, an epic take on the same subject, but taking it into totally different spheres. I haven’t seen much TV on this subject since. So this is a personal story for me, detailing the AIDS epidemic in 1980s. Gay men at the time were only just discovering this ‘new plague’. This STI began to kill them in great quantities all over the world. Rasmus from rural Sweden (played by Adam PÃ¥lsson) is young, beautiful and gay. He makes his way to the bright lights of Stockholm and dives head first into the gay scene.
He meets Benjamin (Adam Lundgren, a sort of Swedish Toby Maguire with gorgeous eyes), a closeted Jehovah's Witness and they fall madly in love. Rasmus discovers he is HIV-positive (in some scenes we see them years later in hospital as Rasmus is dying) and this triggers in Benjamin the need to come out to his parents and show his support for his love. They excommunicate him and he never hears from them again, bar one letter from his mum not to contact them again. More sadness. Much turmoil.
It’s thanks to the character Paul (brilliantly preformed by Simon J. Berger), the flaming, sniping motherly figure (who has such a low voice for an effeminate man), who realises Benjamin’s secret instantly and has all his gay friends over for Christmas, which is where the couple meet. The first episode ends beautifully with Rasmus and Benjamin in the snow, not knowing where they are going, but wanting to go there together. As they walk away we see them begin to hold hands in a pleasurably twee moment of the show. There wouldn’t be much more like this, as the last two episodes were brutal, painful and totally heart rendering. I haven’t cried this much since seeing The Elephant Manâ€¦
The classic symbolism used is also worthy of a mention. The white elk seen in the forest by Rasmus and his family and then seen on Christmas Day, must represent the otherness of nature, that of being gay. The father says it’s unlucky to kill one and why should it be just for being different? The family stand outside their house in sheer amazement upon seeing the animal in the street, just as we see Rasmus and Benjamin linger on the middle of the road in the snow. We also say Benjamin as a boy put his hand on a newly cleaned window. We see his handprint and his father shortly after would goes up to it, pauses, then wipes it away. We see this scene again when his parents inform him of their leaving him. The window scene makes much sense here when put into context - the presence, then removing of a son.
The acting from all is highly engrossing and very believable, as it should be. It can feel like a documentary at times, such is the importance of this subject in the 80s vein. How lovely a couple the two leads actors are. They make we want to be in love and mourn the time I haven't been in a relationship. Both sets of parents were also very stern and uncompromising in their portrayals. Rasmus’ parents may support Benjamin for a time (the mum saying he is like a son now) during their strife with their dying son, only to snub him regarding the funeral. Sweden, it appears was not as gay-friendly and liberated as you would like to think.
Much praise as well for composer Andreas Mattsson, whose flute, clarinet, horn and strings soar over the images and end both episodes one and three and haunt the show throughout. With electronic and dance music to boot, some of which sounds strangely like the flute music, all complement archive footage of Stockholm from the 80s. Good music makes a great drama.
Imagine a world were all your friends are either dead or dying? This idea haunts the third and final episode (some of the characters had very little screen time, such as Bengt who hanged himself after finding out he was HIV-positive and Seppo who is the only one left with Benjamin at the end). It was hard to truly comprehend that horrific idea. But we do see Paul get the fabulous send off he always wanted. No tears for him but joy as we should all have when we die. I had been warned about the power of this last act, with The Guardian saying it was for only the ‘emotionally robust’, which is basically not me. All these character you have become acquainted with and then one by one, you see them die.
We see Benjamin in later years, trying to get on with his life. He finally gets to see the grave of his lover after many years of refusal from Rasmus’ family. He was not allowed to go to the funeral, since they didn’t want anybody knowing he was gay and died from AIDS. A scenario still seen today in the world, much to my dismay. The ending with the cherry blossoms as Benjamin is seen with another man, but his mind going back to his lover and friends, is the stuff of sheer hope, sorrow and resounding agony. Yet my soul wept as we saw footage of a dead infected male being wrapped in black bags and labelled as a ‘Biohazard’.
This show made me thankful to be alive and to mourn those poor young men who lost their lives for the sake of their sexuality. There is still much work to be done, as I’ve said on numerous occasions.
No excuses. You absolutely have to watch this.
There will always be a place in my heart for this programme!
Sublime and totally unforgettable.
Please note: the show contains some scenes of sex, violence, drug use, swearing and very upsetting scenes that would not be suitable for some youngsters.
All three episodes are available on the BBC iPlayer until 11pm on Monday 23rd December 2013. If you download the iPlayer app, you can download the episodes and have them for thirty days prior to the end date.