Warning: Review contains plot spoilers
When a writers reservoir of ideas runs dry, they will turn inwardly and write about the act of writing. For all the meta potential, to talk about oneself and how one does the things one does is an act of narcissistic self-indulgence. Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) would have you believe in Can You Ever Forgive Me? that she is deeply disinterested in herself, but that’s a deception.
Israel’s story is a true one – a successful writer of biographies, whose career has ground to a halt. A woman who faced with rejection in her personal and professional sphere, has turned to alcohol as she circles the drain. A chance opportunity presents itself and she soon finds herself forging letters from dead actors and writers, selling them to unsuspecting dealers to make a living. Along the way she befriends Jack Hock (Richard E Grant), a fellow loner, and soon they form a partnership flogging her forgeries to eager collectors.
This being Hollywood, fictions and dramatic license has altered the detail but not the overall shape of the story.
At first resembling a Woody Allen film – New York, writers, a dark comic edge. Frequently the film feels like Withnail and I Part 2 – two middle aged alcoholics boldly bounding into an adventure of shoddy virtue. Thirty years later and Grant is channelling pure Withnail. Grant and McCarthy feed effortlessly off each other’s energy much as Grant and McGann did. Their presences positively prickling.
Grant is so over the top he easily steals the limelight when he appears on screen, but McCarthy presents us with a depth and somber approach we rarely get to see with her. It is tempting to draw comparison with Kathy Bates, given time audiences and critics will. She sits in a comparative stillness to the compulsive shifting of Grant’s Hock.
Originally Julieanne Moore and Chris O’Dowd were lined up to star. The combo is appealing but it would have denied McCarthy her moment. Sometimes Hollywood gets it right.
This is less a film about a forgery and instead a study of loneliness and depression. There are similarities to The Mule [which we reviewed last week]. Older people who have built up walls that separate them from family and friends. A narcissistic self-destructive attitude. A warped sense of morality and lack of guilt that leads to a serial life of criminality.
Israel is not overly sympathetic. She is caught in the memory of a a failed relationship, and only allows herself to feel affection for her cat. But her cat is itself an avatar for her former lover. But like her lover she refuses to see the cracks. The squalor builds until her flat is filled with rubbish, flies are everywhere, and cat shit lies under the bed. She’s a crazy cat lady, blinded to the corruption encroaching on every aspect of her life.
The friendship she sparks with Hock is built on shared alcoholism and solitude. Two middle aged homosexuals struggling to find someone to share life with. In the absence of partners they turn to each other.
It’s refreshing to see such an honest portrayal of single gay people approaching their twilight years. What’s disappointing is that two non-gay actors have been cast. We’re in the throngs of debate about representations of colour and sexuality on screen. Regardless of how utterly convincing the players are, it does skew the reading of them, of the film.
There’s an intimacy in the settings. The camera lingers on McCarthy’s face, favouring medium shots and close-ups. We are with her in her work space. We see the absence of company. The confines of the flat and her desk. The isolation of the dimly lit bar. Even when she dines with Hock they are separate, in their own booth, walled off from others, the limits of the both marking the limit of the film frame. The bookshops and archives they visit are claustrophobic, tiny worlds which the screen struggles to absorb. Snapshots. Israel and Hock are in their own fantasy, oblivious and separate.
Israel is desperate for acceptance while continually pushing away those who try and advise and help her – shunning the idea that anyone might see her potential. She is aggressive, unpleasant, needlessly mean. Blinkered, uncooperative. She wants to be appreciated for her writing, seeks validation, but she lacks her own voice – hiding behind the subjects she writes about. It’s little wonder then that she is so easily able to become those letter writers she pretends to be. Somehow she fails to see the potential in her ability to become these individuals – the elusive new book surely is the letters she writes. It’s more than copying, it’s inhabiting another reality. Layers upon layers of deception, greedy collectors ignoring the lack of supporting context for the letters. Authentication certificates not worth the paper they’re printed on. Validated but not validated. Truth but lies.
She claims not to be able to write about herself but she talks about Noel Coward’s sexuality, she has the wit of Dorothy Parker. Biographies are the stories of their author not the subject. In the end Israel realises that the only way to address this is to write about her own story. To profit from the undoing of her enterprise. It seems unethical. This is a Trumpian tale where criminality is unpunished, where corrupt enterprise feeds corrupt enterprise. Where it doesn’t matter who you screw over as long as you get your way.
There is little to like in Israel, but not every story should be about loveable people, not every ending needs to be a happy ever after. There’s a grim reality and sombre sadness along with two polished performances that makes this worth watching. The story may lack punch, consequence, and real dramatic tension, but this is an actor’s dream.
Robert JE Simpson
29 January 2019
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, 2018)