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Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Sophie Norstrom reviews the film that chronicles the true story of literary forger Lee Israel, infamous biographer and author

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox


Director: MarielleHeller

Starring: MelissaMcCarthy, Richard E. Grant

Length: 1hr 46min

In amongst the Oscar buzz, I found myself perusing a list of films in typical award season fashion, when Can You Ever Forgive Me? stuck out as a unique addition. With Melissa McCarthy scoring her first serious role, admittedly I felt dubious about the whole thing: oftentimes it’s a tricky business to transform comedic actors into their more serious and stern-faced counterparts. The film is an ambitious project for McCarthy, especially in taking on leading role Lee Israel, who is depicted in the film as a once bestselling author who now struggles to make her way and bag meatier literary projects. With the film chronicling true events, there is an added pressure to rejuvenate a real-life persona in Lee, and for all actors involved in their depictions. Though the film often leers on the comedic, there is a definite sensitivity taken to the more serious undertones of the film; namely in its exploration of LGBTQ+ issues in both Lee’s character and her close companion Jack Hock. Sadly, I’m not convinced that the tone endures throughout all aspects of the film— the acting seems a bit unconvincing and plot progression aimless at times—but the story underpinning all these elements is certainly one of interest to all book lovers and literary novices alike.

The film follows Lee Israel, an established biographer of the 70’s and 80’s and a once featured author of The New York Times Best Seller List. Set in 1991, the film depicts the writer post-fame and living in a dreary New York apartment with her beloved cat Jersey. In the opening scene we watch Lee get fired for directing some unsavoury language at her boss, and in the scenes following it is alluded to that Lee is struggling with alcohol dependency. It's clear that Lee is living in a state of despair and attempting to grapple with her newfound irrelevancy. One particularly sombre morning, Lee notices her cat has become ill, and upon taking her to the vet realises she cannot cover the costs of Jersey’s medication. In a desperate bid to raise funds— a plight admittedly heart-wrenching as a self-professed cat lover— and strike up a new means of income, Lee embellishes a letter by Fanny Brice and sells it to local-bookkeeper, Anna, who accepts $350 for the piece while emphasising the lucrative market for literary letters.

Here the seeds of Israel’s criminal project are sown: and from this point she embarks on fabricating letters by Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker and the like, amassing a small fortune for each of the works and buying numerous typewriters which she accompanies with the voice of the various celebrities she impersonates. This is where the film becomes a bit unconvincing: Lee successfully invokes the genius of Dorothy Parker but at no point do we get a glimpse at Lee actually being charming or witty on screen. No doubt McCarthy’s acting is good, but there is a certain lack-lustre quality in her delivery: I wasn’t entirely sure what the film was aiming for. Comedy? Drama? Heart-wrenching tale about the plight of a struggling author? None of these elements of the film particularly overwhelmed me, and it seemed Lee’s obviously vivacious personalty could have been taken up a notch or two by McCarthy.

A more genuine aspect of the film is found in Lee’s relationship with fellow misfit Jack Hock played by Richard E. Grant. Lee strikes up the friendship with Jack in a gay bar she frequents, and we witness her truly connect with another individual for the first time on screen. Jack is a similarly exuberant character, swept up in the literary scene and washed out by the failings of his career. The pair make the perfect partners in crime with a Scully and Mulder-like dynamic, with Jack eventually becoming Lee’s criminal accomplice. The friendship is turbulent and chaotic, with both characters facing significant challenges throughout the film. On the surface, the film seems to chronicle a considerable fall from grace with an insight into the desperation of a failing writer: but more subtly, the film explores the isolation of the gay community of the 80s and 90s. These more serious undertones of the film perhaps give birth to more harrowing and genuine scenes, and the bond formed between Jack and Lee on the basis of these issues is what often steals the spotlight away from other leading features in the film. This is interesting, as the film doesn’t embark on a mission to market itself as such: these themes are underlying and subtle, which is a effective device throughout and normalises same-sex dynamics and issues.

Overall, Can You Ever Forgive Me? meandered on forgettable at times, and I’m not entirely convinced McCarthy depicted Lee all that effortlessly. Though, the film certainly had memorable moments in the friendship of Lee and Jack and its exploration of loneliness and isolation. Funnily enough, the film’s lack-lustre components are fairly forgivable, and the tale nonetheless makes for an easy and engaging viewing.

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