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article imageReview: ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ needn’t ask to forgive anything Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Oct 26, 2018 in Entertainment
‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is an endearing film about an unlikely friendship that develops around a biographer’s phoney letter writing plan.
There are certain narratives, which even though they are based on true stories, they are difficult to believe. Generally, these involve the gullibility of those around the protagonist as they are permitted to enact their scheme with little to no resistance. There are people who will continue to push the boundaries until they are firmly stopped; but until then, they will take advantage of any loophole they can uncover to skirt the rules and maintain their ruse. The puzzling thing is it’s almost never a malicious act but rather one of defiance or self-interest. In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, it’s a bit of both.
After a few successful biographies on accomplished women in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) hasn’t been able to sell her publishers on another of her ideas. As many other writers, she found work as an editor, but her less-than-congenial attitude poses a risk in almost every interaction she has with other people. Commiserating in a bar one day, she becomes reacquainted with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a gay socialite who’s himself become ostracized for his poor behaviour. Desperate for money, Lee sells her most prized possession: a handwritten letter from Katharine Hepburn, which fetches a pretty penny from a local book dealer. Struck with criminal inspiration, Lee begins to forge letters from a variety of dead authors, playwrights and actors, and sell them to dealers all across town. She prides herself on capturing the voice of the writer, which gives the document more credibility, but doesn’t make it any less illegal.
Lee is a cantankerous woman who prefers the company of her cat over any person she knows… though that gradually changes over the course of this narrative. In addition to finding a friend and drinking companion in fellow outcast, Jack, Lee also begins to court a book shop owner named Anna (Dolly Wells), who shares her love for Hepburn. These relationships end up being the real victims of Lee’s deception — for a woman who clicks with so few people, jeopardizing the only true connections in her life in favour of her scheme seems ludicrous and impossibly sad. Yet, it’s based on a true story so her desire to turn on people before they can turn on her is a pitiful truth based in facts.
The pride Lee takes in the letters she forges is unanticipated. Studying the language used in their correspondence and familiarizing herself with their personal affairs, she would compose letters that were an exact replica of the individual’s voice; though they’d often reference details that would never have been committed to permanent record, no matter how confidential. For example, the film’s title is from a letter she writes as Dorothy Parker, asking to be forgiven after a night of drunken misbehaviour. In spite of Lee’s efforts to make them appear genuine, none of the resellers ever attempt to authenticate the documents as they’re blinded by the rarity and value of the papers. It’s not until after several sales to multiple dealers that the authorities are made aware of these suspicious transactions.
Like many other comedic actors, McCarthy demonstrates she also has a talent for the dramatic. She fits quite comfortably in the skin of a homely cat lady with a knack for unsolicited ghostwriting, spewing sarcasm and radiating belligerence. Consequently, the sporadic moments of kindness she displays when with Jack or Anna shows an entirely different side of her demeanour, and provides McCarthy another opportunity to shine. Grant’s lively, shallow character is Lee’s polar opposite, which is perhaps why they get along so well. He’s equally excellent as both of their personalities jump from the screen and points to potential awards recognition. This is only director Marielle Heller’s second feature, but she certainly has a way with complex women.
Director: Marielle Heller
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant and Dolly Wells
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