With a deft hand and continuing feel for humor-laced ensemble drama, Danish helmer Lone Scherfig follows “Italian for Beginners” with an ultimately life-affirming course in suicide for non-majors in “Wilbur Wants to Kill himself,” her first pic in English. Beautifully scripted and winningly layed, the Glasgow-set tale centers on two brothers and a mousey but endearing single mother whose fortunes gravitate around an old bookshop and local hospital. Viewers who found “Far from Heaven” or “8 Women” too arch should relish a melodrama that’s modern rather than post-modern. Given its impressive balance of charm and bite, it looks like anything but suicide at he international box office for “Wilbur,” which has taken a tasty $1 million since opening in Denmark last November.
Broodingly handsome Wilbur (Jamie Sives), who is much beloved by his nursery school charges and irresistible to women, attempts suicide with such chronic regularity that members of the therapy group at the local hospital vote him out as too discouraging to their progress. Bounced from public housing for being deliberately careless with his gas oven, Wilbur moves in with his older brother, Harbour (Adrian Rawlins).
As solicitous and caring as Wilbur is cavalier and selfish, Harbour used to nurse the brothers’ recently deceased father. Their sole inheritance is dad’s funky shambles of a second-hand bookshop, which has living quarters attached.
A regular customer is unprepossessing Alice (Shirley Henderson). Chronically exhausted from her late shift-cleaning job at the hospital, Alice is the mother of Mary (Lisa McKinlay), a pragmatic eight-year-old. Alice earns paltry additional income by selling the books left behind at the hospital.
Circumstances toss these four characters together, and Harbour and Alice are soon wed. Although their love is genuine, so is the attraction between Wilbur and Alice. Wilbur continues to essay suicide, but modifies his zeal when the familial quartet is threatened by unexpected news.
Screenplay — which feels almost effortlessly plotted, even though what happens is extreme — is noteworthy for its stoic wit, to which thesps do complete justice. Sives’ Wilbur is hostile and self-loathing but kind of lovable all the same. Rawlins’ chipper yet wounded perf as Harbour is spot on and Henderson never hits a false note as the magnet for adversity who soldiers on. Supporting cast is aces, with Mads Mikkelsen delightfully deadpan as Danish Dr. Horst and Julia Davis a hoot as Moira, a nurse much enchanted with her own “almost 100% organic” lifestyle whose aptitude for saying the wrong thing is spectacular.
Although the themes are universal — juggling sexual attraction, resolving feelings of residual guilt, making sacrifices, parenting under adverse conditions — pic weaves a specific reality in which what happens here could only befall these precisely drawn characters. Emotional neediness is rarely so well portrayed without being off-putting.
Thoughtful widescreen lensing and evocative production design help foster pockets of cheer in the potentially dreary Glasgow locales.