Can You Ever Forgive Me is one of the very best examples of a film’s quality not being in what it is about, but in how it is about it. This funny little two-hander about a fading writer selling forged literary letters for about $400 a pop premiered at the London Film Festival up against films about heroin addiction, ISIS, and the war in Ukraine and is more gripping, exciting, and moving than any of them. With its astutely observed slice of life atmosphere and quietly revolutionary focus on two older, queer lead characters, Marielle Heller’s film is a small wonder that’s very easy to recommend.
An expert biographer whose glory days are behind her, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is stuck in a rut in 1991 New York. Her books aren’t selling, she’s late on her rent, and her cat is sick. After finding out a letter she had from Katharine Hepburn is worth a decent amount of cash, she takes to stealing and forging similar type-written artefacts, hawking them to bookstores and private collectors across the city with the aid of her gadabout accomplice and drinking buddy Jack Hock (Richard E Grant).
Heller and writers Nicole Holfcener and Jeff Whitty revel in the contrasting stakes in Lee’s scam. It’s paying her rent and giving her a long-lost purpose, so it’s life and death for Lee, but, even when the FBI get involved, it’s still amusingly small-scale. There are scenes of great tension where the greatest threat to Lee is a small university librarian, and laughs and pathos are earned in tandem throughout. This theme of divided perception carries over to the character work – you love Lee and Jack’s company and root for them whole-heartedly, but you also fully understand why every literary and intellectual social circle has cast them out.
They’re rude alcoholics whose senses of humour don’t just border on the cruel, but tip right into the territory and carry on without looking back. That they’re kept so sympathetic is down to great, hilarious writing, and two brilliant performances. This is McCarthy’s finest dramatic hour, though that’s not to say her almost-unmatched comic skills go unused, and a welcome return to form after a shaky year. A nervous romantic dinner with good-natured and trusting bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells) is a magnificent showcase. The unease of letting oneself be vulnerable is captured in a few fleeting glances and unsaid words, both touching and warmly funny.
Grant is on typically Grant-ish form, and to have the pair of them in the lead is a delight. You don’t often see duos like this at the heart of movies, particularly ones playing straight down the middle of awards season, with a lesbian and a gay man in their 50s taking New York for themselves. Bookish isolation and the ‘only in New York’ privileged poverty that affects former members of the upper middle class are well captured by Heller’s cold grey visuals and a set design team at the top of their game.
As a study of loneliness and wasted ambition and talent, Can You Ever Forgive Me is effectively melancholy, and as a buddy movie criminal caper, it’s very funny. These contrasting but skilfully blended moods are capped off in a sweet coda at the film’s very end, and the obligatory biopic ‘what happened next’ text over the credits earns some laughs of its own. It’s one of the year’s most unexpected delights.
Directed by Marielle Heller
Written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
Starring; Melissa McCarthy, Richard E Grant, Dolly Wells
Runtime: 106 mins
Can You Ever Forgive Me releases in the UK on 1 February 2019