Marielle Heller’s Crime Caper ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is Blunt and Unapologetically Mischievous

A true story about the most extravagant pursuit of overcoming writer’s block you’ll ever see (save perhaps, The Shining). Can You Ever Forgive Me is a smooth tale of identity crisis, corruption, friendship and surprisingly, rebellion. Much like its central characters, it’s blunt and unapologetically mischievous. It emits a controversial message of, ‘even if you’re living life vicariously, at least you’re living’ and it’s up to the audience to decide whether this is ultimately a triumph or a tragedy.

Set in 1991, we meet loner Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a one-time bestseller on The New York Times list, who’s now struggling to make ends meet. She’s uncompromising and bitter, thus prompting her agent to tell her to find another career, “You can be an asshole when you’re famous. But as an unknown you can’t be such a bitch.” However, more by impulse than calculated intention, Lee begins to embellish letters by renowned writers and other celebrities, impersonating the likes of Noel Coward, Louise Brooks and Dorothy Parker.  Through this, she is aided by eccentric ally Jack Hock (Richard E Grant), a flamboyant drifter and fellow outsider. Together, this oddball couple embark upon a small-time heist that takes the literary collectors world by storm, but does crime always continue to pay?

The performances in this film are outstanding from our two leads, both having swept up innumerable nominations this awards season. Its true Richard E Grant’s portrayal of flirtatious and charismatic Jack Hock echoes a famous fine-wine drinking thespian, however, it would be superficial to regard him as a mere reincarnation of our beloved Withnail. Jack Hock is a much warmer character who beams a heart-breaking vulnerability masked by self-indulgence and bravado. He’s a victim of a melancholic, hazy existence and Richard E Grant captures him spectacularly. Melissa McCarthy is equally fantastic, playing loveable misfit biographer, Lee Israel. Dowdy, frumpy and grumpy, she’s hilarious in her fierce intolerance of the average human being. It’s a treat to see her in a dramatic role and unsurprisingly she delivers full throttle, crafting a complex, unlikely heroine, both tough and fragile, ambitious and disillusioned. Is she seeking creative fulfilment or validation? Is she pathetic or sympathetic? I’m still not sure. Ultimately, both characters are strong on their own but the chemistry between Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant is the true heart of this story; generating a beautifully kooky friendship, amalgamating two eccentrics who delight in their own alienation.

It’s a film tinted with longing for the past. This is exemplified through the gorgeous soundtrack, the voices of legends Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee and Jeri Southern haunting the narrative. It’s also displayed through use of cinematography that emits a warm, cosy atmosphere in keeping with the film’s world that revolves around crimson typewriters, scotch and dimly lit bars and bookshops. The use of deep colours, such as earthy browns and dark greens helps to amplify this. However, this palette also lends an air of stagnancy, perhaps alluding to how Lee is trapped within the limits of another’s fame, unable to claim credit for the work herself. On occasion, this stale aura is sharply contrasted against beautiful shots of a frosty New York City, arguably exemplifying Lee’s isolation from the rest of the world.

The script is witty and well-crafted with bursts of humour and disarmingly moving moments entwining throughout. Although it may seem to plod along at times, the story is definitely gripping, as was revealed in the cinema at the moment when Lee confuses her lie to a collector, claiming she received a certain letter from her uncle, to which he responds, “I thought you said it was your cousin?” An audible gasp. In moments such as this, Breaking Bad comes to mind – you know it’s immoral but you can’t help wanting them to get away with it. Overall, Can You Ever Forgive Me is uplifting and bizarrely life affirming as the ending is not as concretely defeating as you might anticipate it to be, “I can’t say I regret any of my actions. In many ways this has been the best time of my life”. Cheeky and sinfully hopeful, chin-chin.


by Angel Lloyd

Angel Lloyd graduated from University of York in 2018 with a degree in Theatre: Writing, Directing and Performance. Admittedly always felt like a traitor as film stole my heart long ago. Wish and hope to become a screenwriter/playwright. Graduated from BFI Scriptwriting Academy in 2015 and Northern Stars Documentary Academy in 2014. Much love and adoration for Carrie Fisher, Julie Taymor and Andrea Arnold. Soft spot for Baz Luhrmann glamour and Tim Burton wackiness. Favourite films include Withnail and IEdward ScissorhandsNowhere Boy and Moulin Rouge. 

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