Dir. Lone Scherfig, 2003, UK, 111 mins
Cast: Jamie Sives, Adrian Rawlins, Shirley Henderson, Lisa McKinlay, Mads Mikkelsen, Julia Davis
Review by Gavin Bush
Following on from the international success of Italian For Beginners, Danish director Lone Scherfig has made her first English language film with the bittersweet Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself. Set in Glasgow, it follows two thirty-something brothers through love, death and redemption. This is heavy material, but it is peppered with some very funny moments. As a result, when the serious scenes are juxtaposed with the ridiculous it creates an overall feeling of ambiguity to the film. The opening score is also an enigma bringing a jarring French New Wave feel to Wilbur’s squalid Glasgow flat.
Wilbur (Sives) is intent on killing himself, and although assiduous in his attempts, something always goes wrong. With his rugged good looks and a sharp wit, it is hard at first to see his motive and disillusionment. In contrast his upbeat brother Harbour (Rawlins) appears to cherish life. He wants to look after Wilbur and insists he moves in with him above the old second hand bookshop they have inherited from their recently deceased father. Wilbur’s life revolves around the suicide group at the local hospital, and ironically his work looking after children. Despite his grumpy reticence with the group he gains the attentions of quirky nurse Moira (Davis). Meanwhile Harbour has taken a liking to one of his customers, the beautiful and demure Alice (Henderson). Encouraged by Wilbur, he asks her out, they are soon wed and she moves in with her angelic daughter Mary (McKinlay) in tow. This is where things start to get complicated with them all living together above the bookshop and Harbour holding a deadly secret about his health.
Jamie Sives in his first lead is a natural and puts in an excellent performance. He combines a Robbie Williams-esque charm with a knowing intelligence. It is only near the end of the film when Wilbur’s true character emerges and some of his earlier, seemingly incongruous actions become clear. We learn about his traumatic parental scars, his animal passion and the warm underbelly hidden behind his comic defenses. The steady pacing, development and unpeeling of a character in this way shows great skill and understanding between Scherfig and Sives.
Finally, he finds himself having to dramatically rescue a woman trying to drown herself and as his inevitable relationship grows with Alice his demons are slowly quelled. The supporting cast is of a very high standard, especially the enigmatic Dr.Horst superbly played by Dane Mads Mikkelsen. It is rare when characters of such depth surround the central roles, and a greater involvement from them would have been welcome.
Shot on HD video, the photography looks wonderful and is nicely composed, but the naturalistic lighting goes too far on occasion with a dark and moody feel that looks under exposed, and mixed with the cold Scottish weather adds a heavy handed and unnecessary gloom to the atmosphere.
By the end of the film a genuine transformation has occurred, not only with Wilbur but the periphery characters as well. All the subplots are tied up neatly. This is satisfying to watch, but a doubt still remains, is Wilbur a strong enough character for us to really care about him? And is Wilbur really true to himself when he finally betrays his brother’s trust? Sives isn’t to blame here; the weakness is in the script and a character that on paper Scherfig may have overestimated. Ultimately these are the only questions that hang over this charming, understated and intelligent film.