Film Festival review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

When autobiographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) finds her latest work isn’t selling and she also loses her day job, things seem pretty tough. There is a way out but it requires her to reimagine herself, and more darkly than she had expected.

Oct 22, 2018, updated Oct 22, 2018

Rebuffed by her literary agent and behind in her rent, Israel has begun to despair. Things look grim. What’s a writer to do?

Her fortunes change when she realises she can make money forging letters by famous writers and selling them to gullible fans.

The crux of the story is seeing how long can she can maintain that scheme and the tension attached to this is what propels the plot. We know what Israel is doing; that much is simple. What intrigues, however, is how far she will go, how daring her forgeries will be, who she will try to dupe – and then, whether she will be found out, and what the consequences will be.

The purchasers of her fakes are certainly prepared to swallow her stories about the provenance of her material. At one point, Israel suggests that she is a better Dorothy Porter (known for her wisecracks) than Dorothy Porter, and they seem to agree.

It’s the journey that counts here and it is a simple one. What complicates matters beautifully is the characterisation. McCarthy portrays Israel as a lonely and rather bitter person, rejecting real opportunities for closeness. She is wonderfully nuanced, shown through body language and expression as a downtrodden woman losing hope and then discovering that she can make a living from blowing a raspberry at literary snobs.

Richard E Grant plays Israel’s sidekick, Jack Hock. He is the other pillar in this narrative, a willing if not always trustworthy accomplice in her scheme. Grant plays him as wry, needy, and witty. The pair have a fascinating symbiosis that carries the film through the occasional slow period.

The escapade and the nature of the perpetrators is more at the heart of the story than the price they eventually pay for their ruse. How did they do it? What kind of person was Lee Israel? Yes, this emerges from the film. Some of this is also indicated during the credits, with notes on subsequent events.

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While the momentum may lag here and there, the quality acting shines through. Marielle Heller has done a great job of directing overall.

Essentially, this is an insightful movie that superficially happens to be about writing, but which is more centrally about the lengths that people might go to when needy and lonely.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? was the closing night gala film at the Adelaide Film Festival. It will have a general release in cinemas from December. See more Adelaide Film Festival stories, reviews and photo galleries here.

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