Powered by a heartfelt and deeply human central performance from Melissa McCarthy and enlivened by a gregariously louche turn from Richard E Grant, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” delivers a plaintive plea for clemency on behalf the embittered, the flawed and the dismissed.
There’s not much about author Lee Israel (McCarthy). She’s stubborn, cantankerous and demanding, driven by increasing desperation for validation and acclaim that slips from her grasp the more she clutches at it. Snubbed by her agent and struggling to make ends meet, she stumbles across the opportunity to make some money by embellishing letters from famous literary figures. It’s a short step from embellishments to outright forgery but revelling in her newfound vicarious acclaim and with the encouragement of her erstwhile confidante and hanger-on Jack Hock (Grant), she begins to open up to life again just as the authorities start closing in.
There’s a deliberate lack of glamour to Israel’s life and McCarthy doesn’t shy away from portraying the more unpleasant and awkward aspects of her character and yet she retains a core of sympathetic verisimilitude that keeps you on her side. Her superficial callousness is a pre-emptive defence mechanism; she’s so bruised by life that she’s built a wall and is making everyone else pay for it. Her defences are breached by the vivaciously charming and eccentric Jack Hock, an itinerant gadabout in whom Lee finds a kindred spirit, scathingly derisive of the glitterati while simultaneously pressing their metaphorical noses against the windows, longing to join the crowd inside, played with intoxicating glee by Richard E Grant.
The film wisely avoids building a false sense of ticking clock tension, preferring instead to allow the story to unfold as an inevitable tragedy, each step taken by Lee inescapably bringer her closer to her comeuppance. In her ultimate downfall, though, there is a spark of hard-earned redemption and a bittersweet commendation of the human spirit.
It achieves the primary goal of any biopic handsomely, making the viewer want to learn more about the subject but any sense that the film had missed out significant details turns out to be erroneous as, with the exception of detailing each and every forgery created, it actually manages to faithfully recreate the actual events.