Can You Ever Forgive Me? Movie Review: A beautiful, sensitive film that must not be missed at any cost
Subtle in its humour and pathos, it gives you an honest glimpse into the cruel world of a literary has-been, and also shines a light on how far a writer will go for the sake of her survival
Just before I began this review, I realised that Can You Ever Forgive Me? premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September last year, with its wider release taking place a month after. Prior to that rude shock, I was ready to proclaim McCarthy’s and Grant’s respective performances worthy of all the nominations at all the major awards, but it turns out they already made it to those honourable mentions. Why it took so long for such a brilliant drama to grace our screens confounds me no end, but here’s the thing: it was well worth the wait.
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E Grant
Director: Marielle Heller
Based on biographer Lee Israel’s memoir, the film is a tribute to all the strugglers, the has-beens, the outliers, the rejects, that society deems unworthy, because they know no better. The film is also a most honest portrayal of real writers: those who don’t curry favour with the establishment; those who choose to do things on their terms, no matter the cost; those who refuse to sell out; those who are perpetually broke because no one wants their recent work; those who take too much refuge in the bottle; those who are authentic (even when they attempt something disingenuous). Melissa McCarthy’s Lee Israel is all of those things, and despite her acerbic wit and her unrelenting habit of ‘calling a spade a spade’ (in public, at her literary agent’s, anywhere really), her innate humanness through all her troubles is what makes her so relatable. A borderline misanthrope who was once on the New York Times bestseller list, Lee’s noteworthy credits include biographies of Katherine Hepburn and Estée Lauder. Her last book hasn’t done well at all, and her most recent venture — a proposed biography of Fanny Brice — has no takers; her literary agent states, in no uncertain terms, that no one is interested in such a book. With mounting bills, a sick cat to tend to, and no advance in sight, she bumps into an acquaintance in a bar.
Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) shares much in common with Lee, but is more colourful and less bitter than his counterpart. Many things set Can You Ever Forgive Me? apart, but it is the subtlety of the narrative that is perhaps the most commendable aspect. This subtlety extends to the humour (dark or otherwise) and sadness in equal measure. What is left unsaid (and understated) is as important and relevant to the story as its opposite. Full credit to Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty for an outstanding script.
There is a very real feel to McCarthy’s acting, in particular, so much so that you take on Lee’s struggle (and by extension, her ways of coping) as your own. Despite her brave face, her devil-may-care attitude, and her cynical humour, her pain is quite palpable. Grant’s Jack Hock is as eccentric and funny as can be under his strained circumstances (something the viewer is never kept in the loop about); all we are given to understand is that his survival instinct and his way of looking at the world have made him resilient enough to get by.
Scenes that stand out include one in which Lee and her literary agent have a heated argument. The former is furious about Tom Clancy receiving a $3 million advance for his “right-wing propaganda bullshit.” Her agent tells her that Clancy plays the game well (interviews, book signings, radio shows etc) — so, either she falls in line with that sort of thinking or she finds a better way of marketing herself. The dialogue in which Lee refers to Clancy in such terms — “No self-respecting writer drinks sherry” — had me in splits. All the exchanges between the owner of the small bookstore (Anna) and Lee are beautiful to watch because of their nuance and sensitivity. And finally, the courtroom sequence in which Lee reads out a letter to the judge. That telling note lays bare all the insecurities writers feel about their original work and the criticism they open themselves up to.
This film is especially for those who feel unfairly judged or rejected in any way, shape, or form, and are in need of something to soldier on. Can You Ever Forgive Me? has the makings of a classic. The whole team, starting from Marielle Heller onwards, deserves a standing ovation for a tremendous effort.