Generally speaking, biopics tend to centre around an exceptional person (in one form or another) overcoming an adversity of sorts.
And whilst Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? adheres to the formula, her subject – author Lee Israel – is far from exceptional and her challenge to overcome is to not get caught for the acts of criminality she has undertaken.
In the grand scheme of things Israel’s illegal activity of forging letters from the likes of English playwright Noel Coward and American satirist Dorothy Parker and selling them to collectors for large sums of money doesn’t seem like such a large crime, but in the early 1990’s it garnered attention from the FBI.
Ironically, Israel being caught out gave her stalled career the jump-start she so desperately craved, and the autobiography on which this film is based – Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger – became her best-selling opus.
Prior to her criminal activities, Israel (played here with determined wit and grit by Melissa McCarthy) was a once-best selling author who made the New York Times Best Seller list through her autobiographies of such figures as cosmetics tycoon Estee Lauder, and actress Talullah Bankhead.
The opening scene introduces us to Israel’s hostile demeanour as she’s let go from her workplace for drinking on the job and firing back to her employer, allowing us an insight into her alcoholism, anti-social behaviour, and dwindling money problems all in one moment.
Months behind on her rent, unable to secure an advance for her latest work and desperate to aid the failing health of her cat (her one true companion), she’s sinking.
She finds a lifeboat in the form of personal letters tucked within the biographies she’s researching. She sells the letters and learns that collectors pay a much healthier price for letters of greater detail.
With her own writing skills and knowledge of classic literary figures, she begins to write her own letters, selling them to enthusiastic collectors for hefty fees.
Allowed the chance to flex her dramatic acting chops, McCarthy embraces Israel’s disdain for others and narcissism – but at the same time creates a character audiences can invest in.
She highlights Israel’s vulnerability. The character’s frumpy appearance and sexual orientation have often led people to disregard her opinions.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a gloomy experience. It’s actually funny, with McCarthy’s biting one-liners utilised throughout. Israel shows no fear in verbal stoushes.
Much of the humour comes through her interactions with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, a contender for Best Supporting Actor if ever there was), an ageing New York queen with a fondness for theatrics, cocaine, and younger men.
He becomes her confidant and partner-in-crime when he also feels the pinch of financial hardship. Grant is simply fabulous here. The scenes between himself and McCarthy also lend the film a surprising tenderness.
At once a low-key crime drama, a period piece, and a buddy-comedy of sorts, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a loving tribute to a figure many people never heard of. But deserves to be remembered.
Lee Israel was evidently a difficult figure (the film is dedicated to her memory following her passing in 2014) but in the hands of McCarthy, under the direction of Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), and through the words of Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) and Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), she proves a joy to meet.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is in Australian cinemas this Thursday. Watch the trailer below: