Lee Israel found her voice by impersonating the voices of more talented writers. For decades, she was an esteemed biographer, churning out numerous tomes on the works of accomplished women ranging from actors such as Katharine Hepburn, to pioneering businesswomen such as Estée Lauder. Despite the cultural cache from having works in the New York Times bestseller list, she fell upon hard times, with no publisher wanting to release her biographies on increasingly lesser known subjects – which led to a drastic career move that gained her notoriety.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, director Marielle Heller’s follow-up to her wonderful 2015 debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl, is assured in how it never portrays Lee Israel as a victim of circumstance or as a conniving schemer desperate to make a quick buck. Played by a perfectly cast Melissa McCarthy, she is short tempered and argumentative due to her diminished standing within the book industry. But remarkably, she’s also empathetic in spite of this, with the film operating equally well as an effective study of a character archetype rarely portrayed in a non-critical light in cinema – the lonely, middle aged woman. Israel’s actions may have provoked an FBI investigation, but Heller doesn’t think of her actions as criminal, seeing them as the spark that ignited her only close friendship, and the discovery of her own authorial voice.
The film begins in 1991; Lee Israel can’t get her publisher to return her calls, she’s been fired from a copywriting gig due to her short temper, and her only companion is an ageing cat given to her as a present by a former girlfriend. By chance, she happens to meet Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), an equally lonely man who has just been released from prison, where he served a sentence for armed robbery, only to discover all of his friends have passed away from the AIDS crisis during his time behind bars. As Lee discovers she can make hundreds of dollars plagiarising letters from literary greats, she brings Jack into her operation – with the pair having to improvise new ways of making money when booksellers begin to get suspicious following the revelation of her faked Noel Coward letter.
Despite the unique nature of the criminal story, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is decidedly laid-back, more interested in the inner lives of these two ageing gay characters than the crimes they’ve chosen to carry out. The friendship between Lee and Jack is one of the most tenderly depicted in recent memory – and while neither actor has been cast against type, both McCarthy and Grant manage to find a renewed earnestness within characters who aren’t too dissimilar to those they’ve played before. In the case of McCarthy, her rage fuelled outbursts feel believably dramatic, despite this trait forming the comic core of her characters elsewhere. Grant, meanwhile, leans on his inherently flamboyant theatricality to portray a character who accentuates his camp characteristics to disguise a sadness that’s just out of view.
The screenplay, co-written by Nicole Holofcener (who was originally slated to direct, with Julianne Moore in the lead) and Jeff Whitty, minimises the cultural context surrounding the characters. The AIDS crisis is a spectre hanging over the film; Lee and Jack meet-up in a frequently empty gay bar, with Jack trying to make a joke out of his loneliness, to hide the pain of losing so many friends from an illness that a few years later would take the life of his real life counterpart too. The film is moving precisely because it doesn’t try to be – the deep bond between Lee and Jack means that, even when darkness swoops into their lives, they can remain laughing in the face of tragedy.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is ultimately far more interested in these two characters than the criminal escapades they find themselves falling into. Heller’s film helps us look past the actions they became defined by, to find a quietly moving account of a turbulent friendship – with two of the year’s most unexpectedly charming performances from both McCarthy and Grant.