Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a fantastic film. Based on the memoirs of Lee Israel, the film maintains the personal intimacy that her autobiography gave in detailing her story. From the very beginning, the film proves to us that it is very much her story. Lee Israel is at every point the focus, even when she is not onscreen, as it is largely her exploits that drive everything in the plot. The story is incredibly well paced, and running at 107 minutes, I didn’t notice the time fly by. I was entirely engrossed in the plot. The small cast also lent itself to keeping the focus on Lee, and not bogging down the plot in any way. Her story was unknown to me and I found it to be a fascinating watch.
Melissa McCarthy delivers a stellar turn as Lee Israel. This is a serious film role for her, but McCarthy still delivers some zingers in her portrayal of the caustic and embittered Israel. The humour is biting and on point at every turn, and McCarthy is entirely believable in this role. I fully believed her as the dislikeable veteran writer, worn down by repeated rebuttals from her disinterested and put-upon publisher, frustrated by her own lack of progress in her search for greatness. Despite her many flaws, she is an incredibly likeable character because she was relatable. She doesn’t want to do anything, but she wants it all. She hates people, and avoids them, yet she also seeks the out as she needs validation. She is a mixture of contradiction and vulnerability behind a wall of insult. It’s, therefore, a crying shame to me that Melissa McCarthy has been overlooked by every award show thus far this year. Her previous Oscar nomination was a shock, from her hilarious turn in Judd Apatow’s Bridesmaids, but even more shocking is the lack of awards for McCarthy in this role.
In contrast to McCarthy’s Israel, who is trapped in an increasing state of becoming obsolete and unable to move on in her life, is Richard E. Grant’s effervescent Jack Hock. Whilst Lee is struggling to live, unable to write and pay for a vet for her sick cat, or even pay for basic things like her rent, Jack is in a state of sheer enthusiasm about his life. While he is as big a liar as Lee, he seems to revel in it. He is an immensely enjoyable character to watch who has incredible pathos to counter his quick humour. Grant is entirely believable too, every facial tick or mannerism seems so natural to his role as the flamboyant British Jack, who shamelessly forces his way into renewing his former acquaintance with Lee. It’s again, a triumph for Grant, as this role gave him his first Oscar nomination, which surprised me when they announced it. It seemed so odd to me that he had never been nominated, let alone won an Oscar before. Unfortunately, he too seems to be falling prey to the same problem as McCarthy, in that both are up against actors who are sweeping the award shows thus far (Glenn Close and Mahershala Ali).
Regardless of this, both actors, who seem an incredibly unlikely duo to star together, have proven a winning combination in this film. One of my favourite scenes in the film is where Lee is prank calling someone, and Jack is egging her on, giggling the whole time. It’s a wonderfully juvenile scene in the film and deeply hilarious to watch. The film then switches back to Lee’s increasingly dangerous situation. What Can You Ever Forgive Me? shows its viewers is the link between comedy and tragedy, continually switching between the two, and the two lead actors pair so well with this theme. It’s a fantastic example of actors stepping into slightly different roles for them, and really proving their acting chop.