What I thought was going to be another fast-paced, instant gratification, forgetful biopic turned out to be a wonderfully crafted look into the inner workings of a lonely, scared writer, and her charmingly tragic friend. Can You Ever Forgive Me? not only explores the struggle of finding your own voice when writing—something I am sure we all know too well—but, instead, grants us with an exciting glimpse into the touching friendship between Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack Holt (Richard E. Grant). We rarely see stories of artists that are not wildly successful play out on screen, and this unconventionally structured film excitedly grants us an insight into the lives of those overlooked by history.
As the film began in a moody blue hue and faint whisperings we are greeted with Lee Israel, sat in an office, drinking a glass of whiskey, with nothing but the sound of ice cubes filling up the cinema. Within a few seconds we see her swear at her co-workers, refuse to work, and inevitably get fired. We are, thus, invited into the life of Lee Israel: her most recent book tanked, she refuses to change her attitude with her agent, instead stealing toilet paper and a coat from her party, whilst also insulting Tom Clancy who arguably (most definitely) deserved it ('jackass!', in Lee's words). Her personal life isn’t going well either – her cat is sick, she can’t afford to pay the vet, she’s behind on her rent and needs to make money somehow. The film follows Lee’s journey as she stumbles upon the phenomenon of forging prominent authors works and selling them to collectors. She forges letters from the likes of Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway and Noël Coward. At first it is in order to make ends meet, however, it soon transforms into a heist of exploring her own literary voices. The film is much more than the action-packed thriller that the trailer makes it out to be. Rather than falling victim to this cinematographic deception, I would suggest heading straight to the cinema.
Firstly, rather surprisingly, Lee Israel is not cast in a sympathetic light, like most female protagonists, but rather is portrayed in her full vulgar realness as a cantankerous, bitter, loathsome author. It is rare that we get a character as real as Lee, and it is strangely exciting to watch her come to life. As Israel returns home from her now ex-job, images of a dreamy New York flow in, with ‘I thought of you last night’ playing, creating an Old Hollywood feel to the film. This was quickly defeated, however, as the scene swiftly cut to Lee flicking dead flies off her pillow and merely turning it over to still sleep on it. This reveals this quasi-toxic juxtaposition between the idealisation of a writer in New York and the vulgar reality of it, mirroring Lee’s own character. Every seemingly appealing trait of Lee’s has a contemptible counterpart, just like New York. This performance is entirely atypical of Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, Gilmore Girls) who we all know as a primarily comedic actress; I never imagined her to be play such a nuanced sombre character, yet she pulls it off so naturally.
However, throughout all of Lee’s loathsomeness, director, Marielle Heller, creates this wonderful balancing act, using each craft in such a way that we still end up rooting for Lee. Throughout the film, Lee does not want to let us in, neither does she want to be helped. We get these wonderful images of a dreary bleak New York with the cold blues and sharp wide angles contrasted with the warm orange tones and close up shots of the old quaint bookshops. Cinematographer, Brandon Trost, helps to capture this balancing act perfectly. The book shops invite us in, whilst Lee just wants to push us out. The shots parallel Lee’s inability to let people in – a defence mechanism that we see develop throughout the story as each new character (or pet) enters her life. As for her sick cat (which everyone is concerned about), Lee states that she prefers cats to humans – a no brainer!
Yet she rekindles with an old friend, Jack Hock, who she originally met at a party where he relieved himself in the closet – I think this introduces his character in a hilariously perfect manner. Can You Ever Forgive Me? allows us the pleasure of watching the forming of an incredibly special friendship. Jack Holt acts as the perfect foil to Lee Israel, another part of Heller’s careful balancing. We get this flamboyant, over confident, pleasure-seeking character that tries to tear Lee’s walls down every step of the way. Described by the actors themselves as a “love story” between a tortoise and a Labrador puppy, the two brighten our screens with their unlikely duo. In fact, Jack is barely mentioned in the real Lee Israel’s memoir, moreover, intensifying the talent of both Heller and Grant in creating this seamlessly fitting character. Moreover, the director does not draw focus to their sexual orientation – with them both being gay writers in the 90s. Heller allows them to just be free from defining, and thus confining, them to their sexuality. Alongside this, they also simply indulge in some heart-warmingly childlike moments, one, including a prank call pretending to be Nora Ephron, is a really touching scene to look out for.
Underneath this simple prank, however, lies a real issue within the art world. Lee’s agent refuses to take her calls and, thus, she pretends to be Ephron, a successful writer. However, Lee refuses to put on an act, she does all that she can to disengage from the publicity game. Lee wants to make it in the literary world for her own ideas, just art for arts sake. She is told multiple times to write in her own voice, but constantly responds with “I’d love to except I have bills to pay”. We see her struggle in front of her typewriter, searching for words, and the only ones she finds are those of other authors. It is somewhat ironic then, that she ultimately finds her own voice through forging others.
Jack is not the only person Lee forms an unlikely friendship with, within those warm bookshops exists a delightfully sweet bookseller, Anna, played by the brilliant Dolly Wells. The two ensue on a budding relationship that is left to the audience to complete. Lee allows herself to connect to Dolly but finds herself undergoing an identity crisis in doing so. We see her turn to the person that she thinks knows her best, her ex. This is only a small scene in the film, yet it carries so much power, and I’m sure many will resonate with it. It is a tragic example of how we as humans want to know who we are from the reflection of others, whether this be an ex, or perhaps now more likely, a social media post.
However, it turns out Lee’s ex did not know her nearly as well as Lee had thought and she has to work this out for herself. I think this is where her voice really becomes interesting. She begins buying typewriters for each author that she forges – there is his brilliant shot with all the typewriters on the table, each with a label detailing the authors name she’s imitating on the front. She did not just forge these letters, but she became these authors, adding wit and controversy to their works. Lee becomes so invested in these authors that her relationship with Jack strains as she doubts he understands that it is no longer about the money but about her voice, her writing, her wasted talent. It is only upon her downfall that she realises that she can write.
In fact, my favourite moment is right after McCarthy performs an incredibly moving monologue, and she reunites with Jack. I think this is perhaps the most touching scene within the movie; it is too good to spoil but here is a little snippet: Jack breaks my heart as Richard E. Grant delivers the 'Can you make me 29 again?' line so smoothly, as if written specifically for him – the little laugh but then immediate grimace coupled with his growingly teary eyes makes you realise that beneath all of his wonderful extravagance – he is just human.
The cinematography captures this beautifully. The 70mm film really shines through, as it creates this level of intimacy that so perfectly captures Jack, it is one of the only moments where you get this close to him, with all his barriers broken down. You just see him, in all his human glory. I think this is a moment that Richard E. Grant really is Oscar-worthy. The soft colours with this orangey pink sunset outside and Grant’s “dazzling blue eyes” take over the scene, with I’ll be seeing you fading in. The music, once again, nails the emotion, as you want to melt in your seat from the pathos of our leading characters, whilst simultaneously seeing the beauty in this final exchange. But then, of course, true to their nature, the two share a dark joke (it is hilariously tragic) and the whole bittersweet melancholy of the film just comes together.
As Grant states Melissa McCarthey is "so truthful in every little thing that she does that she breaks your heart". This is a film highlighting two overtly real characters, who encapsulate the reality of loneliness. Both McCarthy and Grant play these parts in a refreshingly human manner. Although the actors had at least the achievement of being nominated for an Academy Award, it is a travesty that there was no nomination for directing or cinematography. Heller created a film that is deceptively simple, in a wonderfully nuanced way; she did not tell us what to think or how to react, but rather let it play out in front of us and allow our own imaginations to form our interactions with the film. 'Is this clear?' is a note Heller constantly received on her scripts. Yet, the beauty of the film is in its gaps. It is one of the "joys of storytelling", as Heller puts it.
Whilst still in the cinemas I would highly urge you to go and see Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Edited by Eloïse Wright, Head Film Editor and Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor