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FilmSoc Reviews: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Posted by FilmSoc on Wed, 13-02-2019

by Kieran O'Brien

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the true story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a struggling biographer who learns that she can make money by writing fake letters from famous dead authors. Not only is it a compelling plot, but it serves as a perfect metaphor for Israel herself, who would rather pretend to be someone else than to open up to either her friend, Jack (Richard E. Grant) or love interest, Anna (Dolly Wells).

If there’s one thing people will agree on after seeing Can You Ever Forgive Me?, it’s that Melissa McCarthy deserves her Oscar nomination. She inhabits the character of Lee Israel so completely. It’s wonderful to see an actor normally typecast in slapstick comedies take on something with a more serious dramatic bent and knock it out of the park. It is similarly delightful to see veteran character actor Richard E. Grant take on the personality of flamboyant drug dealer, Jack Hock.

The film paints a lonely portrait of Lee Israel’s life. Her agent doesn’t like her, or her work. Her cat is sick but she can’t afford its medicine. Her only friend is an ageing drug dealer. The joy doesn’t come from watching Israel wallow in these unpleasant circumstances, but rather in how she responds to them, often with caustic wit and a glass of whisky. Israel is petty, crude, and, most significantly, a criminal, but we can’t help but cheer her on.

Israel’s primary relationship is with her cat. Layered beneath the film’s more overt commentary on the pros and cons of refusing to change yourself for others’ benefit (or even your own), is the story of a woman who struggles to make and maintain human relationships. Lee Israel is portrayed so three-dimensionally, that if it weren’t for some flaws in the film, she might have gone down as one of cinema’s most iconic characters.

As it stands, the film does suffer some pacing issues. The film doesn’t take many risks plot- and character-wise, and points pretty heavily in the direction it’s going to take without deviating off-course at all. This might leave some viewers impatient. Moulding the events of somebody’s life into a coherent three-act structure is no easy task, but subverting that typical rise-and-fall structure to make something truly great is even harder. The Social Network, and more recently, Vice, both achieved this. Can You Ever Forgive Me? sits just below these in terms of significant biopics. It is by no means bad, or even unoriginal in its concept, but is somewhat formulaic in its execution.

Nevertheless, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a treat to watch, thanks mostly to some exceptional performances. It has a competent, but not amazing, screenplay that will keep your attention for its run time, during which Lee Israel’s illicit antics and bullish personality are sure to keep any viewer entertained.

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