With a title that sounds like a wacky black comedy, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself may entice the curious. And although the movie does offer some comedic moments of a serial suicide attempter, it gets these scenes over with right away so that it can move on to its more sincere and thoughtful center.
Any Harbour in a Storm
Broody, handsome, and bored, Wilbur (Jamie Sives) attempts suicide about four times in the course of the movie. His father just died, and he and his brother are left alone to tend to the family’s dusty used bookshop in Scotland. Apparently the ennui is too heavy.
It probably doesn’t help that his brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins) is an enabler, fretting about him all the time, giving him the wrong sorts of attention. Harbour means well—he’s the nicest guy in the movie— he just doesn’t do tough love.
The upshot of Wilbur’s repeated attempts is that he is asked not to return to the group therapy sessions at the hospital, a place which will play a large part in Wilbur and Harbour’s future.
Alice (Shirley Henderson) works in the morgue. On the side, she sells books that the dearly departed leave behind, saving the proceeds in a special account for her twelve-year-old daughter Mary (Lisa McKinley).
When Alice is fired, she comes instinctively to the only man who might even remotely be called a friend, the kindly bookseller with whom she shared that one meaningful glance. Director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) doesn’t waste any time, and before long, Alice and Harbour are married.
Wilbur, Harbour, Alice and Mary now make something resembling a family. We have come to love them and root for them. At this point Scherfig introduces the movie’s raison d’etre. It’s something of a spoiler to mention it, so you may want to skip the rest of this section.
While visiting the hospital after Wilbur’s latest attempted suicide, the doctor pulls Harbour aside. The condition that killed their mother is now attacking Harbour, too, and he only has a short time left to live. He decides to keep the news to himself, for now.
Meanwhile, Wilbur has found a reason to live, and her name is Alice. When Harbour is away with Mary or busy in the shop, they find themselves in each other’s arms, even though they know they shouldn’t. They both love and admire Harbour, and news of his terminal condition raises all sorts of painful mixed emotions.
Rather than simplifying these developments into an easy movie conflict, Scherfig stands back and lets the characters drive the action.
The Biblical Wilbur
On the surface, it’s easy to see the movie as being very nice, with splashes of sadness and irony. But there is also something mythical, or maybe biblical, about Wilbur’s jealousy and Harbour’s boundless goodwill that gives the movie extra weight, and a darker flavor. It’s possible to interpret the plot as “tragic and cruel.” Harbour is responsible for at least six characters falling in love, and yet his reward may be that those closest to him take advantage of his kind heart.
The movie doesn’t offer an omniscient narrator to tell us which interpretation is correct, although the musical score that suggests “nice” is the more obvious interpretation. But there is that undercurrent of doubt, and it’s unlikely that even Scherfig knows for sure how Wilbur and Alice feel.
If the characters were any less well-rounded, or the plot less interesting, Wilbur could have been a much less interesting movie. And even then, it probably would have earned a recommendation for its characters and sense of humor.