Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
This week brings a mighty performance by Mads Mikkelsen to the screen, in Joe Penna’s Arctic. This is as good an excuse as any to re-visit a review for a film that seems to me sadly underappreciated, Lone Scherfig’s Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002). Not only does this movie have a gem of a Mikkelsen performance, it shows off Glasgow in a very beguiling way.
Here’s how it looked to me in 2002, in a review from the Daily Herald. As you will read, for a moment the U.S. distributor tried to up the film’s chances by changing the title to Wilbur, which worked about as well as that kind of thing ever works.
Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
It takes a great deal of confidence to create a movie comedy around the topics of suicide and terminal illness. Director Lone Scherfig obviously has that kind of confidence, as her film Wilbur attests.
The distributor of the picture doesn’t have the same confidence. This movie showed in festivals and was reviewed by the New York Times as Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, but as of last week it’s been changed to Wilbur.
Hmmm—Wilbur doesn’t have quite the same vibe. But I can understand why the distributor wouldn’t want to scare people off; this is a lovely movie that deserves a large audience.
Wilbur (played by James Sives) is, in fact, trying to kill himself as the film begins. He’s constantly being saved by his older brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlings), who is as big-hearted and calm as Wilbur is snappish and sour. Wilbur’s sarcasm gets him kicked out of his support group at a hospital. Yet his counselor (Julia Duffy) and a nurse (Susan Vidler) find him strangely attractive. Meanwhile, another hospital worker, Alice (Shirley Henderson, also in this week’s Close Your Eyes) frequents the brothers’ musty bookshop. A single mom, she regularly sells off the books she finds left behind at the hospital.
Alice and Harbour hit it off, and before long she and her daughter move upstairs into the flat the brothers have above the store. But a mutual attraction with Wilbur could cause problems.
Scherfig deals with somber realities as the film unfolds, including illness. Yet almost every scene is comic in some way, and the comedy enriches the subject, rather than undercutting it. This was true of her previous film, Italian For Beginners, which had the same bittersweet tone. That picture was set in her native Denmark, whereas Wilbur is in English and set in Glasgow, Scotland. But the overcast skies and dry humor seem about the same in both places.
I like the way Scherfig lets her people be likable, dislikable, weak, and strong, sometimes within the same scene. She’s also interested in the supporting characters, who develop in charming ways. For instance, the foreign doctor who chain-smokes through his scenes begins as a one-note joke and becomes a wonderfully meaningful character—an evolution superbly played out on the stoic face of Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. In the rest of the cast, Adrian Rawlings (who appeared briefly as Harry Potter’s dad in that franchise) deserves to be singled out. Rawlings’ humanity and warmth animate that trickiest of characters, a truly decent soul, without making him seem like a male Pollyanna.
I suppose Wilbur’s suicidal tendency is a contrivance; the movie doesn’t explain him, so we’re meant to take him at face value. If you can accept that, you can have a very nice time at this movie.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.