Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
Dir: Marielle Heller
Undeniably this is a really great true story that’s ideal for making into a film, but I think the subject calls for a little more creativity and dramatic licence to help make the movie more enthralling.
Struggling biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) embarks on a lucrative spree of forging letters from famous figures, accompanied by her sole companion (Richard E. Grant).
This won’t be one of my longer reviews as there’s not the greatest amount to say about this film. It really doesn’t push expectations in the cinematography, editing, score, or any other ways, maybe intentionally keeping things simple and relying entirely on the strength of some interesting characters being portrayed by skilled actors, and the inherent interest of the true crime story they wrote for themselves.
Casting-wise there are only two main characters, both of whom are excellent. Melissa McCarthy is (almost) always excellent though this role is far less comedic than those she’s become known for. It’s not a flattering role for McCarthy, she’s not a glamorous character, there’s no heady romance and allure, but there is a great skill in her character’s writing which leads to an interesting scenario, and there are also inroads into some depth.
Richard E. Grant is getting some of the best accolades of his career for his role as Israel’s beleaguered friend Jack Hock. Though their relationship is fraught, there’s compelling and convincing chemistry between the leads which is much needed as the people around her are vital, there to pull some personality out of this anti-social character. They orchestrate the few moments that help us to warm to her in any way, her interactions with a variety of characters help to build a picture of a complex individual who’s not necessarily happy with the way she is, yet can’t seem to change. Hock seems to be her antithesis in many ways, doggedly pushing her to the edges of her comfort zone, a gregarious conspirator in her otherwise unsociable life.
Narratively there should be an element of crime caper to this film, the characters are essentially pulling off an audacious robbery. Many elements of heist movies are there, the unlikely co-conspirators, the wealthy mark, intelligent planning, fraught execution. There are times when their criminal activities are going well, and there’s slight excitement and energy imparted to the film, but it’s never given quite the levels of heightened tension or pace it could be, nor are these moderate highs ever prolonged for long enough. If the successes were heightened and extended a bit more, then that would help to increase the contrast and severity when things go badly, so that seeing the characters encounter problems proves more effective narratively. They commit federal crimes, that’s legally about as serious as it can be, though it all feels too non-consequential, an inevitable scolding for the sake of moral balance and narrative conclusion, rather than a life-changing correction.
As a film it’s good, but not great. Overall I enjoyed watching it, the true story it’s based on is really interesting and the characters, though anti-social, are presented as generally likeable. More could’ve been made of the rush of criminality, it’s closer to a ‘victimless’ crime than most and so wouldn’t be hugely abhorrent to make exciting entertainment out of it. When the subject is someone who creatively used her talents to commit crimes for personal financial gain, writing letters that were purposefully interesting to increase their saleable value, it would be fitting to add a bit of creativity to the storytelling to make it more exciting. As it stands, it’s a well-acted and interesting tale that should have pushed for more, yet settles to do what it does competently.
Nominated for three BAFTAs (none of which it won) and two Academy Awards for the lead performances and Adapted screenplay I don’t think it has much chance of winning and will go unseen by most, largely forgotten by the few others, just like the protagonist, it needed a bit more life and appeal to help it along.