Simon Dillon reviews the true story of forger Lee Israel.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the true story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a modestly successful celebrity biographer living in New York who, after falling out of step with current tastes, turns to forgery with her loyal friend Jack (Richard E Grant). Said forgeries took place circa 1991, with Israel faking letters from the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, and selling them to collectors of memorabilia.

This is the second fact based odd-couple drama I have seen this week, and frankly it is the superior one. Darkly entertaining though the fraud scheme is, what really elevates Can You Ever Forgive Me? are the brilliant performances from McCarthy and Grant. Their drinking buddy, mutual-screw-up dynamic is surprisingly poignant. Israel is foul-mouthed, embittered, self-destructive and despises the company of most other humans (preferring her cat). Jack is a promiscuous, hedonistic, small-time drug dealer, but hints of his own deep pain beneath the bravado and con artistry are conveyed with brilliant subtlety. Both characters alienate others in relationships, but take solace in one another's friendship, even though said friendship is also tested to the limit.

As a writer, I was predisposed to like this film, and oddly I took from it a moral that perhaps non-writers will miss, namely the dangers of not exposing your soul in your writing. Israel is told by her agent that because she refuses to do publicity, and has hidden behind the lives of other celebrities instead of writing about herself, she is fast becoming irrelevant. Her fear of revealing who she is in her writing, which any good writer must ultimately do, is by implication partly what gets her into trouble in the first place. Ultimately Israel overcame this, and wrote the memoir telling the true events that this film is based on.

But of course, one doesn't need to be a writer to appreciate this film. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a very well observed drama about human frailty with superb performances and fine direction from Marielle Heller. Some may find it a tad depressing (and here I should add a warning for very strong language), but I didn't see it that way. The more melancholy elements are countered by the vein of rich black humour displayed throughout, and the warmth of the genuine friendship at the core of the story. CR

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