Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a fascinating tale, as much about the spurious nature of ‘worth’ as it is a personal memoir of triumph and degradation. We enter the obscure world of literary memorabilia, where trite postcards or carelessly dashed-off letters command big bucks, just so long as they’re written by a person of note. A thank you card from Noël Coward? That’ll be six hundred dollars, please. And if Coward didn’t actually write it? Well, what’s the difference, really?
Lee Israel, played here with real aplomb by Melissa McCarthy, is a biographer, justifiably proud of her published work, but dismayed to see her stock falling. Having hit the dizzy heights of the New York Times Best Sellers list with her 1980 book about Dorothy Killigan, she’s devastated when her next project, about Estée Lauder, is a flop. Her bitchy agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), stops taking her calls, and laughs openly at Lee’s ideas for future work. Unable to afford the vet’s fees for her beloved cat – or, indeed, to pay her rent – Lee starts to look for other ways to turn a buck.
Israel is a complex character: prickly, tough-talking and isolated, proud of her abilities but unsure of how to make them pay. She’s not especially likeable: she drinks too much; she’s sarcastic; her apartment is filthy and covered in cat shit. And, when the going gets tough, she turns to crime. It’s to McCarthy’s great credit that she imbues the troubled author with enough pathos and vulnerability that we find ourselves rooting for her, willing her to find a way out of her situation. This is helped in some measure by Israel’s putative (and fictional) relationship with a sweet-natured bookseller, Anna (Dolly Wells), which allows us to see how self-destructive Israel is, and how lonely she makes herself.
Still, every crook needs a partner in crime, and Israel’s is Jack Hock, a drinking buddy with whom she develops a friendship of sorts. It’s great to see Richard E. Grant back in a role he can relish (because, let’s face it, he’s not been given much to get his teeth into since Withnail), and he certainly makes the most of the opportunity to show off his acting chops. This is true of McCarthy too, whose performance here has far more depth and subtlety than most of the rumbustious comedic turns she’s previously been noted for.
Israel’s aptitude for forgery is rooted in her real writing skills, and she takes a perverse pride in possessing a wit caustic enough to pass for Dorothy Parker’s, arch enough to pass for Coward’s. There’s a sense here of a woman taking revenge on a literary world that has spurned her, exposing the stupidity of the very people who say she’s not good enough. Director Marielle Heller does a good job of quietly teasing out these themes, and the film is tightly constructed, with every scene earning its place.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a first-rate movie and one which is, ironically, likely to make the value of an authentic Lee Israel forgery soar. Now, where can I get hold of a typewriter?