Released in cinemas in Ireland today Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a pitch-perfect poignant character film.
It’s based on writer Lee Israel’s 2008 memoir (Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger), depicting a period in the 1990s when, down on her luck, broke, and with a sick cat, she forged (and stole) letters by famous literary figures.
It’s finely directed by Marielle Heller, with a well-balanced screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, and stars Melissa McCarthy as the alcoholic and curmudgeonly Israel, and Richard E. Grant as her accomplice, the cheerful and drug-addicted Jack Hock.
(Beyond here are spoilers.)
Israel is not a likeable character, but she’s a vulnerable person: as an older, misanthropic lesbian with a short fuse and an inability to hold her tongue, life isn’t going to hand her any favours. The early scenes that depict how close she is to being homeless, and the humiliation she feels as she sells her books for cash, elicits sympathy. Plus, she loves her cat. In this regard it reminded me of a film I adore: Umberto D (1952), which taps a similar vein.
She has a knack for alienating people, yet with Hock she forms a genuine attachment. Hock is homeless but scams and scrounges a living and lovers without harbouring regrets. It’s not clear until near the end but Hock has AIDS, and most of his friends have died. Both of them like boozing and their similar streak of dark humour forges a bond between them. This odd couple works for a while, but they also sow their seeds of self-destruction. Israel is fearful of caring about people, and Hock is careless with people.
They hang on the edges of New York’s affluent and literary scenes: close enough to see those with better lives, but incapable of changing themselves to fit in with people’s expectations. Yet Israel’s writing talent is for faking other people. In the biographies she wrote she disappeared into the texts so her subjects remained in the spotlight. While inventing stories and writing letters by past luminaries she dissembled like a pro. A knack she was unwilling to pull off in real life.
At one point in the movie a book dealer called Anna (Dolly Wells) suggests to Israel that one day someone might collect Israel’s letters, and states that they are a way to continue in the world after death. It’s not letters, but this film which is Israel’s artefact of immortality. And like the letters she wrote it is a simulacrum: evoking characters and an era of 1990s New York that achieves authenticity through its fiction.
McCarthy is superb: not afraid to inhabit this complicated and difficult person without resorting to sentimentality, and Grant plays Hock with aplomb and pathos. The final scene between Israel and Hock is a masterclass of nuanced acting.
Kudos to Heller for her quietly graceful direction, and to Holofcener and Whitty’s for their well-paced and thoughtful script.
It’s no surprise that between the cast and crew the film has garnered 36 award wins and 83 award nominations – every single one of them well deserved.
And it has a fantastic soundtrack.