Can You Ever Forgive Me? is in many ways a biography about biographies. Based on the autobiography of the same name by Lee Israel, the film recounts the criminal career of Israel, a prominent biographer who finds herself using her unique voice and talent to forge literary documents. In a tale about finding one’s own voice instead of merely imitating, it’s fitting that everyone involved in the film from cast to crew find their own unique voices to bring the fascinating story to life.
Helmed by Marielle Heller, the film brings Israel’s story to life through a sharp and affectionate Oscar-nominated script from Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. Remaining true to Israel herself, it’s a film that sympathises with its protagonist but isn’t afraid to self-deprecate when needed. Israel is a recluse; a classic struggling writer bogged down by an affinity for whiskey and a serious loathing for other people. Whilst we’re shown the tragedy of her position, we’re also shown that in many ways, it’s a situation she’s created for herself.
The film isn’t afraid of condemning Israel’s actions, but it also doesn’t feel the need to inflate her villainy — her forgeries are sold for absurd prices to rich collectors who find joy in them regardless of their authenticity. One of her victims was once quoted in The New York Times saying “she’s really an excellent writer — she made the letters terrific,” and as Israel, herself says in the film on her writings, she proved to be a better Dorothy Parker for those collectors than Parker herself ever was.
Melissa McCarthy brings Israel to life with a surprising level of intimacy but retaining the comedic timing to be expected from a veteran of the genre. In the continuing saga of an amusingly inconsistent career, just a day after her Razzie nomination for The Happytime Murders, she received an Academy Award nomination for the film. She’s joined by her co-star Richard E. Grant in the awards recognition for his first Oscar nomination in a prolific 35-year career, who plays her sharp-witted partner-in-crime Jack Hock – a much-needed antidote to bounce off Israel’s misery.
While the conclusion to Israel’s tale feels a bit rushed as it approaches its final moments, the film manages to balance a detached satirical commentary on the genre with an intimate peek into the mind of a fascinating writer. When it’s all brought into perspective, any of the film’s missteps prove decidedly easy to forgive.
Image Credit: Twentieth Century Fox