Director: Marielle Heller
Screenplay: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty
Based on the autobiography by: Lee Israel
Producers: Anne Carey, Amy Nauiokas, David Yarnell
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 107 mins
One thing I have found increasingly important as I become an older and hopefully wiser film buff is the ability to check your own expectations at the door. Although we have a range of tools to help us pinpoint films we think we’ll probably like or dislike, a terrible trailer or a cockeyed critic can easily throw us off the scent and though genre preferences are not without their uses (I say this as an inveterate and shameless listmaker) it’s reductive to renounce an entire strand of filmmaking based on its most visible examples. With Marielle Heller’s acclaimed Can You Ever Forgive Me? however, I found myself having to suppress my inclination to start loving the film before I’d even seen a trailer. From the stars through the director and writer, I have a great fondness for everyone involved in this project and so while I allowed myself to enjoy the thrill of anticipation when sitting down to finally view it, I did also take a moment to ensure my critical faculties were in check before I pressed play.
As it turned out, I needn’t have been too concerned as I thoroughly enjoyed Can You Ever Forgive Me? as much as I had expected to and without any need to try and force the issue. Based on a true story, the film is the fascinating, intimate and delightfully squalid tale of biographer Lee Israel, a writer whose initial success in the 70s and 80s had dried up by the early 90s, the era in which our story is set. Stubbornly ploughing on with a commercially unviable biography of Fanny Brice, Israel has to supplement her finances by selling a treasured personal letter she received from Katherine Hepburn to a local book dealer. While researching, Israel finds two letters from Fanny Brice tucked inside a book. She steals them and takes one to the book dealer, who gives her a low offer because the content of the letter is so bland. Israel responds by adding an amusing postscript to the other letter, for which she receives a higher offer. Realising there is money to be made here, Israel sets up a sideline forging letters in their entirety by such luminaries as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. She is assisted in her work by local drug dealer Jack Hock, with whom she has struck up a tentative friendship.
There are many expectations that need to be put away before watching Can You Ever Forgive Me? One is the assumption that its story will be a thrilling Ocean’s Eleven style crime caper when in fact what we have is a small-scale character study by way of a clumsily executed con. Another assumption many people made was that the film would be an out-and-out comedy when it is actually a drama laced with an ever-present but not overriding sense of humour. This second assumption was perhaps generated mostly by the presence of Melissa McCarthy in the lead role of Israel, although reviews of the film were at such great pains to emphasise that this was a dramatic role as to almost seem patronising. McCarthy, after all, has proved herself on numerous occasions as an extremely fine actor and while her repertoire has mainly consisted of comic roles, she has a gift for finding the humanity even in grotesques and never giving in to the temptation to play a character too broadly. Take her breakout role in Bridesmaids (for which, lest we forget, she was nominated for her first Oscar), in which her ferociously uncouth sister-in-law-to-be gets to deliver a pivotal and moving pep talk towards the film’s end, something that never would have worked if the transition had been too abrupt. McCarthy’s restraint is put to excellent use in portraying Israel, whose difficult personality could have been played for easy yuks by a less nuanced performer.
To be fair, McCarthy’s well-judged performance is aided considerably by an extremely fine script which sets up Israel’s tactlessness and misanthropy in a less subtle opening scene, thereby allowing the audience to apply this notion of the character at her worse to scenes which don’t push these qualities to the surface. The screenplay was co-written by Nicole Holofcener, one of the great screenwriters of the last few decades whose knack for telling small stories with invigorating wit and intimacy has informed her own directorial efforts from 1996’s seminal indie film Walking and Talking onwards. Holofcener was originally slated to direct, although the reins were instead passed to Marielle Heller whose independent debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl showed a similar flair for low-key excellence as Holofcener’s own work. Heller has created a subtly ravishing film which captures a sense of early 90s New York without ever resorting to even a whiff of cheap nostalgia by way of pop-culture references.
Can You Ever Forgive Me’s other major asset comes in the form of Richard E. Grant’s supporting performance as Jack Hock, which finally landed the actor a much-celebrated Oscar nomination after decades in the business (although Holofcener’s first nomination for writing should surely have been the subject of just as much excitement). Perhaps inevitably, given the character’s penchant for heavy drinking and quotable eloquence, comparisons to Grant’s most famous role in Withnail and I abounded, but in truth Hock is a very different character from Withnail, with a self-awareness and comparative restraint of which that more extreme character had none. Hock provides a more vividly comedic counterpoint to Israel, although his entertaining exterior barely masks an undercurrent of sadness which very occasionally rises to the surface. Grant juggles these qualities beautifully and the approximation of friendship which develops between Hock and Israel is entirely believable, something which imbues it with a touching desperation even when the characters are at their most reprehensible.
As was the case with the memoir on which it was based, Can You Ever Forgive Me? has been accused by some critics of making excuses for Israel’s crimes and its audience of rewarding her for criminal behaviour by lining her pockets off the back of their curiosity. But such a simplistic reading completely misses the point of the film, which is at pains to show Israel’s narcissistic pride in her forgeries, something she has not felt for her professional work in a long time, and how she clings to this even in the face of the silly mistake which deauthenticates one of her works. Ultimately, the film’s wonderful closing moments also ask questions about what value an impartial biographer has in a society that would rather cling to whatever version of events they find most pleasing (and profitable). The fact that this theme can also be applied in critiquing Can You Ever Forgive Me? itself is not an irony that escapes this shrewd and compelling film.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is released on DVD and VOD by 20th Century Fox on 3 June 2019. Special features are as follows:
– Deleted scenes with optional commentary by director Marielle Heller
– Promotional featurettes: Elevator Pitch, Becoming Lee Israel, Likely Friends: A Literary World
– Audio commentary by Marielle Heller and Melissa McCarthy
– Theatrical trailer