‘People. People who need people. Are the luckiest people in the world.’

The profound song lyric uttered by many a leading lady, who’ve played Fanny Brice on a Broadway or West End stage.

For many a writer, it’s this art form that allows us to find catharsis in the most troubling of times, whilst accentuating the joy in the best, potentially drawing praise by many. And just sometimes. It may mask our inability to connect to the outside world, merely craving one solitary soul to truly understand us. In this compelling tale ripped from the pages of our real-life protagonist’s biography, crafting a novel in Fanny’s memory isn’t deemed worthy enough, to the dismay of this film’s funny girl Melissa McCarthy.

A ballsy author. A one-time New York Times bestseller. Brimming with foul-mouthed quips. Lee Israel (McCarthy) is fuelled by stiff drinks and a desperate need to stave off the flies, that are currently gathering in her increasingly decadent apartment and around her flagging career. Garnering more comfort from her beloved cat than her frustrated agent, indulging in the lives of other influential women rather than opening up about her own experiences, brings a fresh slant to writer’s block.

It ultimately forms the basis for an audacious scheme. Forging highly collectable letters of many an acclaimed writer and playwright, conning bookstores aplenty across a chilly New York City, armed with an ever-so-charming openly gay accomplice in Richard E. Grant’s Jack Hock. Initial appearances may scream debonair, but it soon becomes apparent he’s just as down on his luck as Lee, forging an unlikely friendship.

There is an air of melancholy that surrounds many a scene in this Marielle Heller work. The dialled down, dreary aesthetic that, whilst is gracefully observed, very much mirrors the flawed psyches of its double act. Their collective loneliness is almost tangible without the usual necessity of grand monologues to drive it home, with their love lives as empty as their elaborate sham, as they drive other people away.

But Heller never looks to truly condemn them for their questionable actions, thoughtfully dragging out the light of these characters who have been content to live in the shadows, as those long-repressed emotions rise to the surface. For a story that boasts personalities that are so inherently ugly, it has little right to be as truly moving as it proves to be.

Casting infinitely likeable leads certainly helps. Busting personal ghosts in a role that could so easily for her, be deemed a leftfield and superior sequel to Identity Thief. Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of Lee Israel is a career-best, tactfully stripping away the potentially grotesque excess of her demeanour to paint a deeply human portrait, whilst plunging the wonderful wit she’s renowned for into darker territory.

Whilst Richard E. Grant is delightful as the lovable rogue Jack Hock, who seems more invested in preserving the colour of his teeth and thinning hair than anything meaningful, with his underlying vulnerability heart-breaking to witness. At first glance, it’s most certainly an authentic friendship. Yet their dynamic could so easily be interpreted as a queer romance.

In a film that revels in the hollow. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is painstakingly real. A frequently funny, utterly endearing triumph.

 

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Directed by: Marielle Heller
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells