Wilbur wants to kill himself (2002 / Denmark, UK, France, Sweden)
written & directed by Lone Scherfig
co-written by Thomas Anders Jensen
cinematography by Jrgen Johansson
I saw this film initially when it was released theatrically in Germany in 2002 at the cinema, dubbed in german. It seemed like a rather light romantic comedy with some twists and memorable scenes.
I recently picked up a DVD at my local library to watch it again, this time in its original language. Directed and written by danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig after her international breakthrough with the dogme film Italiensk for begyndere (2000), the film was shot in the english language as it takes place in Scotland with most of the actors being scottish. The script was also co-written by the multi-talented Anders Thomas Jensen ("Open Hearts", "Mifune", "Brothers", "In China they eat Dogs", "Flickering Lights").
Though the movie seemed better the first time around, this time I enjoyed it more. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that I haven't been watching films regularly for over a month now, but it could also be the added experience of four more years of film-analysis.
Wilbur wants to kill himself is the programmatic title in a film where the traumatised protagonist is constantly trying to do exactly that. The film begins, like Aki Kaurismkis I hired a contract killer (1990), with Wilbur (Jamie Sives) trying to end his life in the kitchen of his small appartment. Like with all his other attempts during the film, he fails, and finds himself in a hospital where he is already aquainted with the stuff. We find out that he has a brother, Harbour (Adrian Rawlins), who has been trying to take care of him ever since their mother died when they where children. The first suicide attempt shown in the film can be read as a reaction to the death of the father which has happened shortly before our story begins, and is constantly referred to in the course of the film. Left alone with the inheritance of a huge library where the family used to live, the two brothers are now facing the double challenge of confronting themselves with their past (the family) and the future (their family's bookstore), if they want to solve their emotional and financial problems. The two brothers both have different strategies of avoiding an inspection of their lives, but when a widowed woman named Alice (played by Shirley Henderson) enters the picture, she and her daughter become a catalyst for the following events, which will forever change the lives of all involved.
Overall, the movie hasn't really the dark edges Scherfig and Jensen would have liked it to have, and treats the personal tragedies of the people involved a bit too lightly. The direction is overtly superficial, with the richness of the script being the one thing that keeps the film together. The main characters, though complex, are given too little time to be developed, and the excellent cast seem to have had to rely more on their own experience than on any clear instructions by Scherfig. This creates a rather odd situation where sometimes the characters are playing next to each other, which adds a "real" touch at some moments, while it detracts from some dramatic scenes in others.
Nevertheless one must compliment the casting, because the actors all have perfect on-screen chemistry. Most remarkable is clearly danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen, who plays one of the many original side-characters, and adds to the film tremendously. His farther developed acting skills are evident in comparison to the inspired but rather stereotypical performances of the protagonists. Also great was Susan Vidler (Naked, Trainspotting) who managed again to express a lot in a small supporting role.
The problem with Scherfig's direction is that while she doesn't try to distinguish between the darker and lighter moments of the film, resulting in a humorous treatment of a lot of scenes, the direction at the same time overemphasises dramatic moments with a change of tone that is most reflected in the intruding score (though it's memorable and delicate in most of the other scenes), and the simpler camerawork, wich choses too many close-ups of the protagonists faces to achieve its emotional impact. At the same time, most of the important scenes are never given enough screentime to distinguish them properly from some unimportant events. The effect is that you get to know the characters, but like in real life, it's never quite enough. In itself such a strategy isn't a bad choice, but in this case it is evident that the direction is striving for a different result. Thus some elements of the film keep standing in the way of each other.
One inspired sequence at the wedding of Harbour and Alice, shows in one scene Wilbur and Sophie (Susan Vidler) shortly before they kiss, then cutting abruptly to another scene where Alice and Harbour complete their own. This is followed by Wilbur opening the door of a car for Alice and adressing her with Mrs. North. She replies with a teasing "Thank you Mr. North".
In this sequence the following events are hinted at, while the groundwork for the complicated relationship between Alice and Wilbur is established for the viewer.
In another sequence we follow Harbour shortly before his death walking through the hospital, when he passes Horst (Mads Mikkelsen) and Sophie who are having a tender moment in an adjoining room. We can hear their conversation linger on for a few seconds, while the camera follows Harbours attempt to reach the other side of the hall without stumbling over his own feet. The blooming of a love and the ending of a life are thus contrasted in a poignantly casual way.
It is too bad, that such scenes are rather the exception than the rule in a film that overall tries too hard to please the viewer. And even in its daring moments it is usualy not daring enough. In the end, Wilbur wants to kill himself comes of as one of the better examples of european co-productions, while nevertheless falling into most of the usual traps.
Recommended for a romantic evening, or if you want to relax with an intelligent movie that will keep you in a good mood, but which doesn't require too much attention.
I saw the film on a german DVD, which has good image and sound, and a lot of decent bonus material, but it should also be available in the US and the UK.
Personal rating is a fine 59 out of 100.