Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Can You Ever Forgive Me? – rich performances and evocative storytelling (from 1 February)

When an out-of-fashion biographer runs out of words and her agent ignores her as much as her creditors don’t, Lee Israel finds that other people’s words are a more lucrative – and enjoyable – way to earn a crust.
“A 51 year old woman who likes cats more than people”
Melissa McCarthy plays the unconventional character in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a light-fingered alcoholic who lives alone with her beloved cat. While researching for her next manuscript, she discovers an original typed letter from a celebrity tucked into a library book. When she is disappointed to discover that it is too boring to be collectable, she types on an outrageous postscript to boost its value and soon she finds herself using her study of literary characters to knock up fake memorabilia on a suite of old manual typewriters in order to pay her bills.

She meets Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) in a bar and the disgraced grifter is slowly woven into her world of fabrication and fraud. Superficially friendly, the chemistry between these pair of oddballs never totally turns into trust, but they usefully prop each other up and offer often-madcap opportunities to escape the daily grind.

McCarthy is beautifully morose, snapping out biting insults to all those around her in a way that communicates the quick wit and intelligence of her character. We feel Israel’s discomfort around people who (did) care for her (all except her landlord whom she treats with uncharacteristic generosity). As the author’s despondency intensifies and it becomes obvious just how many aspects of her life are out-of-control, McCarthy builds a persona that attracts audience empathy and downplays her criminal side.

Grant wallows in his own web of lies about his living quarters and health. He brings an otherworldliness and an alternative desperation to the fusty world of old books Israel lives in. He carries the flamboyant costumes with ease, and Grant’s demeanour portrays a frail humanity as we watch Hock’s health failing (he’s HIV positive).

Nate Heller’s jazz score gently animates the prolonged character study while Brandon Trost’s cinematography rather obviously and frequently pulls focus across a scene to steer the viewer’s eye from character to character in shots that tend to be longer than modern cinema usually enjoys. Stylistically, the film adopts a brown and beige colour palette like the old books that line the shelves of the disreputable dealers who accept Israel’s supply of fabricated memorabilia.

I’m often a critic of on-screen crimes being portrayed as victim-less. In this story, it is implied (particularly in the final scene) that the dealers are knowing accessories in the fencing of less-than-authentic items which are bought by those rich enough not to care.

The titular quote from Dorothy L Sayers asks a question. We know that Lee Israel remained proud of her fictional writing – it was truly some of her best creative work. Audiences will find it hard not to have sympathy with her position, particularly when the story is as well constructed and executed as Nicole Holofcener’s script and Marielle Heller’s direction.

There’s hardly been a film this year that isn’t derivative of a memoir, biography or history book. When it is realised to cinemas in a couple of weeks’ time, I half expect The LEGO Movie 2 to flash up “based on a true story” at the start! Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on Lee Israel’s self-penned confessional.
“Go out and make a name for yourself”

Death and disappointment are themes that run through much of the dialogue in the film. While the literary world has more than its fair share of penniless writers, the feeling of depression about not achieving your dreams is common to much of western society. Israel’s sense of failure extends from her words to relationships, and McCarthy shows this inner turmoil as she repels an attracted bookseller and is rebuffed by her worn down ex-girlfriend.

Can You Ever Forgive Me is a great piece of evocative storytelling with rich performances from the two central actors. In Movie House cinemas from 1 February and the Queen’s Film Theatre from 15 February.

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