Based on the confessional autobiography by Lee Israel Can You Ever Forgive Me? could have been as metafictional as you could get. However director Marielle Heller (The Diary of the Teenage Girl) takes a more conventional approach allowing her lead actor’s performances to come to the fore.
With her latest biography in danger, and her previous work out of fashion, author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling to make ends meet. Misanthropic and with a propensity to drink, Lee is not sure as to what her future has to offer. However circumstances give Lee an unexpected option, when she is lucky enough to find a letter while researching her work. Soon, with the help of her drinking buddy, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), Lee embarks on a different career, that of forging the correspondence of well known writers.
Kudos to the extreme foresight of Heller to take a step back as a director, and not to overwhelm with cinematic flourishes. She has realised that the weight of this story lies within the extraordinary characters it presents, and has given the safe space for the actors to express this, while doing her part in an extraordinarily competent and non intrusive fashion. It allows McCarthy and Grant’s performances to shine, and creates something that not only fashions likably unlikable characters, but is extraordinarily empathetic towards them. Here is the strength of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, because, although we as an audience are relatively forgiving of a likable rogue, or a redeemable train-wreck, rarely do we glimpse them portrayed with such compassion and understanding.
McCarthy is sterling in this regard. The nuance she brings to her acting is more than unexpected, it is a revelation, and the response it elicits in the audience is palpable. It is not a performance of grand gestures, but small expressions. Someone that has been ground down by life, even when she started from a pessimistic and misanthropic basis. She is certainly capable of showing us the extreme prickliness of Lee, but also making us care for the character, and admire her even as her actions become less and less defensible. Grant is on more familiar ground, having cut his teeth on charming drunken ne’er-do-wells (Withnail and I), but his practiced familiarity lifts the role to something grand. Combined the two have marvelous chemistry, each playing off the other for darkly comedic effect, and more than a little genuine drama.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, as with her previous film, really showcases Heller’s understanding of character and strength in conveying it. Helped by two consummate performances it is certainly engaging viewing.