Can You Ever Forgive Me?


We know the name Lee Israel now, but her literary efforts were ignored by many shortly after her prime. When she hit hard times, her community hardly cared. Perhaps, this is because of her abrasive nature, but Israel wanted to always remain herself because she believed in authenticity. This is why her most well known work -- the forged letters of elite figures -- is more than just one large lie. Israel had a knack for understanding how these people operate, and she admired them for more than just the basis that they operated at all. Anyone can try and pass fake memorabilia off as authentic artifacts. Israel did just that many times, and she won collectors over by grabbing their hearts at the same time. Her works might have been fake, but her ability to captivate anyone was real.

Melissa McCarthy should have been cast in works like this lightyears ago. Her take on the blunt Israel is still with a bit of a comedic angle, but for once the dialogue, director, editor, camera operators, co stars and others take her with the utmost seriousness she has always deserved. She remains funny, but she also wields a carved pathos that feels so difficult to navigate on the first viewing. You have to stand back to admire all of the little nuances that are taking place at once. Can You Ever Forgive Me? doesn’t just remind us that McCarthy can act: it tells us that she is damn good at it. I hope the industry has taken note after this awards season to allow her to take on more roles like this, where she commands the screen through perilous truth as opposed to sacrificial low forms of comedy.

Her costar, Richard E. Grant, is phenomenal as the enigmatic partner-in-crime Jack Hock. Grant plays Hock as if Peter O'Toole had come to visit us for one more hurrah. He steals literally every second he is featured on screen through his magnetic aura. Hock has his own demons (especially when it comes to not getting his life on track), and his mistakes feel like they are of the devil's hands. He is earnest, but he cannot keep up with his destructive ways. He is a great antithesis to the similarly self destructive Israel; the main difference is that Israel denies her faults, and Hock passes them off as things that just happen because life is funny like that.

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an indie film by nature, but I adored how it did not hesitate to kick into second gear when necessary. Many indie films wallow in their category and are content with being guided by their constraints. This work, however, lunges towards narrative opportunities, new emotional environments, and different paces at all of the correct moments. Director Marielle Heller could have settled for the key settings (Israel's home, the local bar, the various collection based stores she frequents), but she knows how to make each place say something different each subsequent time we go back. We could have had each plot point come at us with the same speeds, but Heller knows life doesn't work that way; thus, we feel the momentum of the crimes at hand just kind of happening. 

When Israel begins her forging, there isn't a smirking face or an obvious musical anecdote that clues us in. It just begins. We know the story already. We want to experience how it went, and that's exactly what happens. We, too, feel like we are in on it. We've seen the set up with why Israel felt compelled to do something drastic. We get the difficult situation she was in (whether it was life being unfair, or her unwillingness to change). It all makes sense. Can You Ever Forgive Me? instead offers us the ride, and it's one hell of a ride at that. We are stunned with what she gets away with. We laugh at her quips towards her naysayers. We worry once we get far enough. We panic when it goes even further.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a highly entertaining film that neither paints Israel out to be a misjudged hero or an awful villain. She is just herself. She shelters herself from the world because her agent doesn't believe in her (or promote her work), her partner left her at a crucial time, and she has no other loved ones to back her up. Everyone has died or abandoned her. Her cat of twelve years has remained faithful, and that's the only hope Israel lives by. I admire how genuine the entire film feels, because not every story needs to be spiced up to appear better than they already are. This tale of counterfeiting letters is great on its own. Israel knew that, hence why she wrote her memoir (which this film is based on) in the first place. Heller knew that, too, and she presented us this intriguing tale as is. The result is a caper you feel, and that is a wonderful, cinematic gift.

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Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.