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Alan Charlton

Forgiveness gets put to the test

Voices Dec. 18, 2018

Dolly Wells and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? which asks the audience to see the main characters in all their broken humanity, writes Alan Charlton. (Fox Searchlight)

Moviegoers at this time of year are usually inundated with a host of award-seeking films. With the Golden Globes nominated before Christmas and the Oscars nominated just after, the movie industry brings out its big guns just at the time that most people are attempting to cope with the demands of the holiday season.

The result for many is a mad scramble to try to see the better films of the past year. However, this year there seems little to be excited about so far. The Golden Globe nominations include few films that are really outstanding, and one can only hope that in the waning days of the year there will be other releases that are truly worthy of receiving awards. However, all is not lost. Even now in the middle of the contenders there is Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Let it be understood at once, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a film many will view with distaste. Based on the autobiography by Lee Israel, it recounts how Israel, formerly a successful writer, is unable to interest any publisher in her proposed biography of  legendary comedienne Fanny Brice.

While engaged on research into her subject, she stumbles across a letter signed by Brice and discovers, having purloined the letter from the library, that it is worth money.

Israel herself is partly to be blamed for her own failure to attract publishers in that she is rude, foul mouthed, slovenly, anti-social, and a heavy drinker. Too poor to pay her rent or get veterinary help for her sick cat, Leslie decides to forge letters from other people such as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. She is soon on the way to fortune. Striking up a friendship with another outsider, Jack Nock, a gay scam artist, they continue with their crooked scheme.

As pointed out, many will find all of this distasteful, though one could argue that Macbeth and Richard III as dramatized by Shakespeare are hardly embodiments of great virtue. Like them, Lee Israel is not only interesting, but has aspects to her character that redeem her, as does her co-embezzler.

In Israel’s case, she is lonely, a victim of her own self-doubt, and, though talented, even prone to writer’s block. Similarly, Nock is shown as covering with bravado his own isolation and social rejection.

The result is a film that is above all a moving, occasionally comical, and always intriguing film. Richard E. Grant as Nock is excellent, ultimately giving his character a dignity and even grace. Melissa McCarthy, at last given a chance to rise above the farcical dross associated with her in such films as Bridesmaids, turns in one of the finest performances of the year. Director Melissa Heller presents their story with subtlety and restraint.

In all, they really do ask the audience to look beyond the faults of the main characters and to see them in all their broken humanity. They ask the audience to forgive – and at this time of year, that is a good thing.

Though a film which raises many moral issues, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is above all proof that the movie industry has not entirely sold its soul to Marvel comics and action heroes. As 2018 comes to a close, that is good news indeed! Let us hope that there is more to come.