Dir: Lone Scherfig. Den-UK. 2002. 111mins
A bittersweet reflection on love and death, Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself should beguile the same sophisticated audience who warmed to Italian For Beginners and also win writer-director Lone Scherfig a fresh wave of admirers. Displaying the same quirky charm and bone dry humour of her international breakthrough, Wilbur allies these qualities to a deeply felt exploration of the fragility of life and the complexities of human relationships. Maintaining a fine balance between humour and heartache, its unconventional tone may work against it initially, but its powerful emotional grip should result in strong critical support and positive word of mouth. Part of the official out-of-competition selection for Berlin.
Distributors who bought the rights to Wilbur at Cannes 2002 (including Icon for Australia and the UK and Les Films Du Losange for France) or rushed to catch the public premiere in Copenhagen last November could well find themselves with a healthy little sleeper on their hands. The film opened in Denmark on Nov 8, where it is now playing on 40 screens and has taken $665,096. Exposure at forthcoming European festivals can only enhance its arthouse profile.
Co-written with Anders Thomas Jensen, Scherfig's English-language debut was filmed in Glasgow, and there is a bleak poetry to the cramped, musty shops, dimly lit rooms and dilapidated hospitals in which the story unfolds. A brusque, saturnine figure, Wilbur (Sives) has attempted suicide by every possible means but has yet to succeed. When his father dies, his brother Harbour (Rawlins) encourages him to take an interest in the down-at-heel secondhand bookshop that they have inherited. One of their most devoted customers is single mother Alice (Henderson) who works at the local hospital and augments her meagre income by selling the eclectic array of books that are discarded in the waiting rooms and wards. There is an instant rapport between the vulnerable Alice and the kindly Harbour and a deeper affection that grows between her and Wilbur. Faced with a sense of responsibility to others and his brother's serious illness, Wilbur finally becomes selfless enough to embrace life and stop wanting to kill himself.
Although it begins as a very deadpan comedy, Wilbur soon develops the kind of qualities that will make it something of a challenge for potential distributors. It is not just a dark romantic comedy; it is also a love story, a melodrama and a tearjerker that packs a considerable punch. Scherfig's ability to find the little ray of hope that illuminates the darkest corners of desperate lives ultimately places Wilbur on a par with the films of Aki Kaurismaki and Mike Leigh.
There are times when the humour is a little strained and the plot has to make some quick changes of gear but the confident direction, tender-hearted performances and tear-stained resolution silence any criticisms. Reminiscent of the angry young, working-class actors who came to prominence in the British cinema of the early 1960s (Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Sean Connery etc), Sives impresses in his first starring role, making Wilbur convincingly moody and unfathomable but also possessed of the charm and sex appeal that makes everyone want to reach out to him. The prolific Henderson is also on fine form as Alice, eloquently conveying the vulnerability and mixed emotions of her attachment to the two brothers.
The attention to detail in the production design adds layers of character to the various rooms and settings while an elegantly composed musical score captures the wistful mood of a production that celebrates the healing power of love. Distributors who bought the rights to Wilbur at Cannes 2002 or rushed to catch the public premiere in Copenhagen last November could find themselves with a healthy little sleeper on their hands.
Prod cos: Zentropa, Sigma Films
Den dist: Nordisk
Int'l sales: Trust Film Sales
Exec prod: Peter Aalbaek Jensen
Prod: Sisse Graum Olsen
Co-prod: Gillian Berrie
Assoc prod: Ib Tardini
Scr: Scherfig, Anders Thomas Jensen
Cinematography: Jorgen Johansson
Prod des: Mark Leese
Ed: Gerd Tjur
Music: Joachim Holbek
Main cast: Jamie Sives, Adrian Rawlins, Shirley Henderson, Lisa McKinlay, Mads Mikkelsen, Julia Davis, Susan Vidler