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Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Movie Review

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Movie Review

Rating: B+ (Very Good)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

It can be surprising what are considered collectable items and what people choose as hobbies. Can You Ever Forgive Me reveals a rather curious one as it delves into the world of celebrity letters. With the focus on a biographer who managed to forge hundreds of fake letters, this film is fashioned almost like a heist movie and director Marielle Heller makes Lee Israel into a sympathetic figure. There is a breezy quality to the film, also helped by a strong leading performance from Melissa McCarthy showing a different side than we’ve become accustomed to. Heller takes a subject that might seem disinteresting and crafts an entertaining caper.

The movie does well in immediately establishing who Lee Israel was and McCarthy captures her “caustic wit”, as a friend of hers puts it. The screenplay, credited to Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, peppers her dialogue with various amusing barbs, yet also shows a person who is just trying to get by. It makes perfect sense that Israel would decide to partake in this scheme and there’s a strange rooting interest in seeing her succeed. There’s a believability in how she was able to pull off the forgeries and the film shows every little detail that went into concocting this plan. While it was obviously not the right action to do, the movie doesn’t entirely vilify her, either. In the grand scheme of things, they’re only letters.

The relationship she has with Richard E. Grant’s Jack Hock is properly developed, with all of the difficulties that come from two schemers working alongside each other. While Israel is the lead, the filmmakers also make sure to give enough screentime to Hock to show his motivations. Meanwhile, McCarthy has a sweet chemistry with Dolly Wells as a bookstore owner who takes a liking to Israel. There’s also a nice bond shown between Israel and her cat, Jersey. Jersey has such a presence, it becomes easy to wonder what the 21 year old feline is up to in certain scenes.

The film creates genuine tension as the schemes grow more elaborate. One of the best sequences comes when Israel sneaks into a prominent university archive and Heller shows every step of this plan. By the end of the movie, there is a surprising amount of admiration for what Lee Israel did. Can You Ever Forgive Me mostly works, due to how it champions even the most unusual forms of creativity. At the end of the day, this was just another outlet for her to express her creativity and take her biographical knowledge to the next level. The movie doesn’t outright praise her for these criminal activities, but it’s definitely sympathetic with a humourous commentary on the upper crust elite running throughout the screenplay.

Can You Ever Forgive Me draws attention to a talented mind who put her abilities to interesting use and the filmmakers don’t treat Lee Israel as a villain for taking part in these crimes. They don’t shy away from how she treated others, but she was definitely a complicated figure. Marielle Heller balances the drama of her life with the more absurd comedy of it and Melissa McCarthy helps in making Israel sympathetic and strangely admirable. Behind the bite and drunkenness, the movie is almost having a chuckle right alongside Israel, with even the final title cards featuring some humourous anecdotes about her life after these events.


Stefan Ellison

Stefan Ellison