Can You Forgive Me?

I am not a fan of film comedy, but when I saw the slew of Oscar nominations for Can you ever forgive me?, and recalled of Melissa McCarthy’s hilarious performance in Spy, I hastily booked a ticket.

Based on yet another ‘true story’, this time the book Memoirs of a Literary Forgerby Lee Israel, penned after her conviction for fraud, I have to admit to a small groan. Having said that, as a writer I really connect with her struggles to be published and to get her agent to answer her calls.

Lee Israel is a fat unattractive alcoholic lesbian who prefers cats to people. She has had some success as a celebrity biographer, but with no takers for her latest project on Fanny Brice, and sacked after firing off expletives at her boss, she is down on her luck. With her beloved cat at death’s door she has to come up with some dosh.

During her research she comes across some letters from Fanny Brice which she purloins from the library book and decides to embellish one of them with a PS. Seeing the value-add of her enterprise her ingenious reaction is to begin forging a series of witty letters from stars of yester-year and selling them off to dealers. She is professional – acquiring old typewriters, original paper, practising the signatures of Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker until they are perfect. For the first time in her life she is creating writing that is fulfilling both artistically and financially. ‘I am a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,’ she boasts.

She stumbles upon the perfect accomplice in a bar, a marvellously louche dandy Jack Hock, deliciously portrayed by Richard E Grant, who has also been nominated for no end of awards including Best Supporting Actor for this role. Jack manages to melt her hardened old heart with his love of booze, pranks and filthy language and soon he is her willing helper in meting out revenge to her multitude of enemies and peddling her letters. A liar and a cheat, he revels in the deceptions and tall tales he spins to his clients. Originally Chris O’Dowd was set to play him and Julianne Moore Israel, but this casting is simply perfect and Grant is outstanding. I can almost smell that Oscar.

The comedy transforms neatly into a drama with the inevitability that such forgeries will not go undetected. Despite Lee’s inner and outer unattractiveness we feel an enormous empathy for her predicament and admiration for her chutzpah. Her recent change in fortune slowly begins to eclipse her life-long self-loathing; yet her dalliance with innocent aspiring writer and bookshop owner Anna (Dolly Wells), one of her best customers, reveals a personality at such odds with itself that it is hard to balance. 

Director Marielle Heller’s skill is in treading that fine line between hilarity and pathos which she executes brilliantly throughout, with some fine set pieces like when Lee calls her agent pretending to be Nora Ephron in order to get through. Apparently Ephron issued a cease and desist order against Israel, which makes it all the funnier – and I’m so relieved that it’s true. This in stark contrast to her pathetic life where her only friend is a conman who undermines the pride she feels in her creative writing skills  by offhandedly acknowledging her ‘talent for copying’.

McCarthy reveals a new depth here in her characterisation of the conflicted Israel. She imbues her with a vulnerability and desperateness that goes far beyond a simple comic turn; we recognise in this portrayal the human frailty that can descend on any of us at a bad time in our lives. It is a performance to relish.

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