A man rushes into his apartment, desperate to begin swallowing the pills in his hand. He's looking for relief, but not the standard kind. As the title of this unusual and unusually moving film tells us, "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself."
A bleakly comic co-production from a pair of bleakly comic cultures, the Danish and the Scottish, "Wilbur" is the latest from Lone Scherfig, director of Denmark's delicately funny "Italian for Beginners." Co-written with Anders Thomas Jensen and set in Glasgow, it's both Scherfig's first film in English and not much like anyone else's film, in that language or any other.
The story of a zealot for suicide and his interaction with the people around him, "Wilbur" is best described as a melancholy comedy of life and death. It's unusual in its ability to get emotion out of off-kilter events, to find the humor in tragedy and the sadness in laughter. "I wanted to play on a bigger piano and strike the keys harder than I had done earlier" is how Scherfig describes the difference between this and "Italian," and in that she has succeeded.
With its quirky, almost indefinable tone and off-key, on-target sensibility, "Wilbur" creates a world where everyone is quietly but almost willfully eccentric. Its characters tend to be involved with themselves more than other people, adding a level of difficulty to our caring about them, with Wilbur fitting this definition most of all.
The young man of the title doesn't die in that opening sequence, but that doesn't end either his almost professional dedication to ending his life or his grousing that "it gets more and more humiliating every time you don't succeed."
Though Wilbur (Jamie Sives) is devilishly handsome in a Colin Farrell kind of way, everyone is understandably fed up with him anyhow, including his phlegmatic Danish psychologist Horst (Mads Mikkelsen) and his suicide therapy group, which point-blank refuses to let him back in the door.
Wilbur's only partisan is his older brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins), his perennial rescuer and a man with a noticeably sunnier attitude. The brothers have just come into possession of a massive, overgrown dump of a used bookstore they inherited from their recently deceased father, and Harbour, after removing all neckties and sharp knives, invites his "wee brother" to move in with him in the apartment above the store.
That's not the only change in Harbour's life. He suddenly and impulsively falls in love with and marries Alice (Shirley Henderson), one of the store's more enigmatic customers, who also moves into the bookstore flat, along with her 9-year-old daughter (Lisa McKinlay), quite possibly the most sane and sensible of the lot.
Henderson, whose credits include "Trainspotting," "Bridget Jones's Diary" and playing Moaning Myrtle in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," is a versatile Scottish actress whose fey portrayal is key to "Wilbur's" success. Her Alice is an unaware enchantress, an ethereally beautiful woman who seems not to know how not-of-this-earth she appears.
This may sound like it has the makings of something conventionally romantic, but "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself" is not big on being conventional. What we get instead is a more fluid situation, a multifaceted study of death, denial and being in the dark, and an examination of what it means and what it takes to be truly involved with life.
Attention to character was one of the things that made "Italian for Beginners" so successful, and Scherfig and co-writer Jensen bring their skill not only to the protagonists but to key cameo performers like Moira (a deft Julia Davis), a nurse on the prowl for Wilbur, and even bit players like the persistent customer baffled and outraged by the bookshop's perennial shortage of Kipling. What's also returned, albeit in darker shadings, from Scherfig's previous films is a concern for the lives of characters that enables them to come alive in all their confusing perplexities. Call this a brooding comedy or a darkly whimsical drama, "Wilbur's" willingness to mix gallows humor and real sadness make it something on which labels do not easily fit.
'Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself'
MPAA rating: R, for language and some disturbing images
Times guidelines: Numerous suicide attempts
Adrian Rawlins ... Harbour
Jamie Sives ... Wilbur
Shirley Henderson ... Alice
Lisa McKinlay ... Mary
Mads Mikkelsen ... Horst
A Zentropa Productions production, released by THINKfilm. Director Lone Scherfig. Producer Sisse Graum Olsen. Executive producer Peter Aalbaeck Jensen. Screenplay Lone Scherfig, Anders Thomas Jensen. Cinematographer Jorgen Johansson . Editor Gerd Tjur. Costume designer Francoise Nicolet. Music Joachim Holbeck. Production designer Jette Lehmann. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
In limited release.