Can You Ever Forgive Me? ****
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells
Director: Marielle Heller
In 2019, the focus for mainstream Hollywood depictions of LGBT people on screen appears to have begun to be shifted. No longer do all films that feature LGBT characters hinge around their sexuality or gender. It’s as though the wool has finally been lifted from the industry’s eyes to reveal to them that there is more to a gay person than who they sleep with. In the Oscar-nominated Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a comedy-drama based on a true story about a literary forger, its two leads are only incidentally gay, depicting a rarely seen friendship between a lesbian and a gay man but without making a song and dance about it. But even more rare is that this is a film that revolves around two gay characters over 50; something seen incredibly rarely indeed.
In New York in 1991, Lee Israel (McCarthy) is a biographer who writes about celebrities whose star has faded. With little market for her work and no celebrity attached to her name, her agent advises that it might be time to find a new career. But while researching Fanny Brice for a new book, Lee comes across an original letter from the star tucked into a book, which she steals and sells to a local book dealer, Anna (Wells). Amazed by the price the letter has fetched, she begins embellishing and then forging whole new letters from a host literary figures. As she gets bolder, the literary world wise up to her actions, so she enlists the assistance of her friend Jack (Grant) to sell on her behalf.
Melissa McCarthy is dynamite in this role. An antisocial, withdrawn and bitter harridan who doesn’t understand that being a writer has more to it than simply writing books, some of the film’s best sequences are when Jack opens the curtains on her life, revealing the squalor she’s been living in and uncovering just how reclusive she has become. She’s endearing, in a way, but for every quality that makes us like her, there are ten that make us see why others don’t. “I had a girlfriend,” she says “but she wanted more. Like me listening to her. And making an effort with her friends.”
Richard E. Grant arguably plays an exaggerated version of Richard E. Grant, but his camp eccentricities are in stark contrast to McCarthy’s restrained nuance, which make them a perfect partnership and a delectably unlikely friendship. He is caustic, flamboyant and sparkling, but in his final scene we see a heart-breaking sign of the times as he attempts to forge his legacy with the wit that has been drained from him. He’s an exaggerated Withnail maybe, but the fading grandeur of his English-accented performance is considerably more affecting than if he had been played a New Yorker.
The lens takes its time observing Lee’s life and is unflinching in holding close-ups as McCarthy’s numbed expressions give hints of her turmoil inside. New York is wet, cold and unforgiving and the early 90s are shown as a place of great divide between those with money and those without. The film is melancholic but without naval gazing, tipping the balance more toward its character study than its amusingly criminal plot. This might be a crime film, but there’s no grand heist here. It’s an amusing story that revolves around two gloriously eccentric but finessed and nuanced antiheroes.
The script is witty but not obtuse, with some of its humour veiled within literary criticism, which makes for great Easter eggs scattered through the story about Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and countless others. The cultural currency of these literary collectors’ items are placed under the microscope too, because what are their customers buying? A famous name attached to a witty letter? And there is no doubt in Lee’s skill in assuming the voices of these now dead writers, who are beyond profiting from the value of their name.
While the film is quite fluffy at times – I mean, I’ve never seen a film about a cat-lady hinge so much around said cat – this is a brilliantly observed and superbly performed drama. The plotting is a little woolly at times, but is entirely made up for by McCarthy, Grant and a pithy script the brings a sparkle of joy to this dowdy brown New York palette.
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