In case you didn’t figure out from my extended ramblings on Lars Von Trier and Dogville, I’m a bit of a fan of the current wave of Danish cinema and the Dogme movement. Thus when I spotted a film written by Thomas Anders Jensen, who also wrote the scripts for Mifune and Open Hearts, and directed by Lone Sherfig, whose Italian For Beginners is the only female-directed Dogme film to date, I had to go. Good thing. Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself was probably my favorite film of the festival on all levels—script, acting, cinematography, everything was fantastic.
Filmed in a conventional style (i.e. this is not a Dogme film) with a largely Scottish cast, the film tells the story of the terminally depressed Wilbur. And yes, he does in fact want to kill himself. Both of his parents have been stricken with cancer, he hates his job, and he lives alone, so what does he have worth living for? After one of his suicide attempts, Wilbur is sent to live with his older brother Harbour in the large house/used bookshop that Harbour has just inherited from their recently deceased father.
Here the two brothers meet Alice, a poverty-stricken single mother who sells them the books she finds while working as a night cleaning nurse at the local hospital to support her young daughter. Harbour falls in love with Alice and Alice, genuinely fond of Harbour and seeing a way out of her terrible life, agrees to marry him. Things become far more complicated when Harbour is diagnosed with the same cancer that afflicted both of his parents and when Wilbur and Alice find themselves falling in love.
Now here’s the thing: it’s a comedy. A very dry and black comedy, but a comedy nonetheless, and one that hits its mark both often and hard. Scherfig manages a fairly similar balancing act to the one Alan Ball manages with “Six Feet Under”. She finds humor in extremely unlikely situations and uses it to break the tension in what could otherwise be an unbearably oppressive film, while also managing to respect the seriousness of the situations her characters are in.
Jensen’s script is honed to near perfection and beautifully cast. Jamie Sives and Adrien Rawlins play the brothers to perfection, no small feat considering the number of issues they both carry hidden away deep inside. Sives in particular is stunning in his portrayal of Wilbur, somehow managing to remain deeply sympathetic to the audience despite the sometimes horrific things this script leads him to do. Also strong are the criminally overlooked Shirley Henderson—best known either as Moaning Myrtle in the second Harry Potter film or as Spud’s girlfriend in Trainspotting, depending what part of the demographic you may be in—as Alice and Mads Mikkelsen who steals every scene he is in as the hospital’s drier-than-a-desert psychologist.
One of the great strengths of this film, and something that sets it apart from anything coming out of North America, is Scherfig’s willingness to present a complex moral story without casting any judgment whatsoever. She simply presents the story to the audience as something that happens and leaves it to them to sort out the morality of it all at the end. Smart move as it gives the film a lingering emotional heft that would have been destroyed by any attempt at moralizing.
Written by Chris Brown.