Marielle Heller’s not-quite modern day take on a classic film genre is packed with enchanting and complicated performances, with a stunning eye for the New York of the early 90s.
After her latest biography fails to sell any significant amount of copies, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), author, loner and barely-functioning alcoholic starts forging personal notes and letters from famous American authors including Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. Helped and hindered in turn by fellow outcast and street-wanderer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), she moves up from tiny independent bookshops to large national sellers of rarities and antiques.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? has more in common both aesthetically and narratively with the film noir of the 1940s and 50s than a regular biopic of a (in)famous character in recent American history. Israel and Hock haven’t got the stylish bearing of Bogart or Bacall, but their quick-mouthed, petty and barbarous snipes have all the familiarity of similarly no-quite-innocent filmic couples. Together they are hard-drinking and hard to be with – with no one to talk to but each other.
Israel can be cruel and selfish, while Hock’s own inclinations towards the odd moment of light-fingeredness and self-preservation leads to clashes and arguments that possibly cause the eventual downfall of the operation. Despite this, there is also an underlying seam of something almost resembling friendship between the two. Some of the films most unexpectedly charming moments are found over a large Chinese takeaway, or while clearing cockroaches out from under a bed.
McCarthy embraces the bitterness of Israel, entirely transformed from her comedy roles that we’re familiar with – here she is blackly comic, but miserable. A woman in love with her own misery and initially reticent to do anything about it. And Grant, now Oscar nominated is a ray of brilliance, exuding all the charm he possessed without ever coming across insincere or caricatured. The supporting cast are all solid in their own performances, but the film truly belongs to the two leads.
Heller’s direction is beautifully understated too: warm blues and cold beige dominate the pallet, while also capturing a New York that no longer exists, one on the edge of gentrification where small second hand books shops still thrive. The film is old-fashioned but not nostalgic. It never portrays this is as something to be missed but rather capturing a year in a city that has changed irrevocably from what it used to be. Condensed into roughly a year of Israel’s life, Heller depicts the malleable nature of the city throughout the seasons: bitter and despairing in the winter, the warmth of the spring and summer evenings, difficult conversations by a chilly pond with a ex.
It’s a film that should have received more recognition in this Oscar season – and several guesses why it’s not – but it’s a interesting and unique look back at a difficult woman.