Oscar Nominations 2019 – FILM REVIEW: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Dir: Marielle Heller

Nominated for: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor (Richard E. Grant), Best Adapted Screenplay.

Score: ★★★★☆

Another in the glut of true life based films that has swarmed the Oscars this year, on the surface this one seems like the premise for a somewhat different, flimsier film. Author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has made a name for herself as a relatively well known writer, even breaking the New York Times best seller list on occasion. However, we meet Lee as both inspiration and interest surrounding her work are drying up. Struggling to pay her rent and vet fees for her sick cat, Lee sells a letter once sent to her by Katherine Hepburn to try and make ends meet. Quite by chance she then comes across another personal letter penned by a well known figure hereto undiscovered, sandwiched between the pages of an old book in the library. Lee takes her first wrong step when she steals the letter for the purpose of later selling. She further strays from the straight and narrow when she realises said letter will fetch more based on the ‘personality’ contained within the letter. Most letters being fairly perfunctory affairs, Lee decides to up the market value and spice the content up a bit by adding a humorous postscript on the end. Before she knows it she has become a full blown forger of vintage personal letters by literary notables of the past. A somewhat lonely figure, Lee’s fraudulent scheme actually ends up gathering an unintentional accomplice when she picks up a stray ne’er-do-well in a local bar in the shape of Jack played by Richard E. Grant. Lee’s unwinding life and deepening criminality are only topped by Jack’s devil-may-care attitude as his wild antics hasten the spiral of events.

Richard E. Grant & Melissa McCarthy up to no good.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? Is a tender story about the ache of loneliness, wrapped in acerbic notes of comedy that accompany the ups and downs of a bit of light criminal mischief. In the absence of a thrilling criminal plot line with desperados running around with guns blazing, the film works because of it’s beautifully written script filled with caustic dialogue to match the caustic wit of Lee’s forged letters, its wonderfully appointed soundtrack that couches this New York movie in it’s sounds ranging from Chet Baker to The Pixies (and more than once it helps to echo the style of Woody Allen) alongside a gentle heist/ buddy/ outlaw movie quality that is at points filled with tension and desperation to match the antics of a Butch and Sundance or Bonnie and Clyde. At the centre of this film is the relationship between Lee and Jack, not as lovers, but as temporary kindred spirits that drag each other down into the joy and pain of depravity experienced only when two lost and desperate souls lock horns. Richard E. Grant has received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Jack, and it seems to be a role tailor made for Grant, calling to mind his boozy turn in cult classic Withnail & I. In truth Grant’s character in this one is a quite different brand of lush from the role that put him on the map. Despite being a considerably more nuanced part it doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch for Grant, it’s true to say he doesn’t have to do much more than read the lines and it works perfectly with his own brand of personal panache. Melissa McCarthy’s turn is what is often referred to at times like this as nothing short of a revelation. It’s long known that comedic actors like Robin Williams (i.e. Dead Poets Society or Insomnia) Adam Sandler (ie. Punch Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories), Jim Carrey (i.e. Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Man On The Moon) can channel something uniquely special into bittersweet, even dark or tragic roles. McCarthy does a fair amount of that here, but what is so special about it is the considered nature of her performance. So considered in fact, it creates that perfect mixture of heightened reality combined with a very naturalistic tone, underplaying things when need be. It’s quite the performance and really the core of this movie alongside some great dialogue. She would be more than worthy of the Oscar here.

Marielle Heller directs Melissa McCarthy.

Heart-breaking, funny, thrilling, and tender in equal measure this is in the upper echelons of this year’s Oscar crop. It’s smart without being inaccessible, it’s crass but only with good reason. It’s no grand crime saga, and nothing like the comedies McCarthy is known for. It’s a small movie about a fairly innocuous crime but despite that it manages to offer a few important lessons. Even when (as most movies do) it begins to falter as the story reaches its all too inevitable conclusion, director Marielle Heller makes an effort to just pare it back enough so as to not veer into cheese territory when so many others would, any sentimentality is kept in check so it can still be raw and affecting. It’s a considerable leap forward in mature filmmaking from Heller’s comparatively so so previous effort The Diary of a Teenage Girl. But for all Heller’s strides it’s the duo of McCarthy and Grant’s partnership that brings this film to the next level. Originally it was set that Julianne Moore and Chris O’ Dowd were to play the pair. We can all thank our lucky stars that, despite their respective talents, the cast ended up as it is, as we now are blessed with a great little film that captures the spirit of the true life tale as captured in Israel’s book, and perhaps a bit more.

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