2018 MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL: A peek inside the world of a very unlikable figure, Marielle Heller‘s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” paints the appropriate picture of a person unworthy of sentiment, let alone forgiveness. Not holding back on the raw, leaned-in truth of real-life figure Lee Israel, Heller ends up – though likely not intentional – displaying a significant example of privilege within the white community, which could bring large amounts of rage and frustration to individual viewers. Headlined by a terrific performance from Melissa McCarthy and a scene-stealing Richard E. Grant, the movie manages to make its point, though admittedly, not especially warmly.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” tells the story of Lee Israel (McCarthy), who falls out of step with current tastes within the book community. Adapted from her memoir of the same name, Israel turns her art form into a deceptive practice, along with the help of her charismatic, flamboyant friend Jack Hock (Grant).
The script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty mobs the film with an equal amount of laughs and dramatic moments. Likely something her career desperately needed after the flops of “Life of the Party” and “The Happytime Murders,” Melissa McCarthy burrows deep inside the complex Israel. Lively in parts, she taps into her entitlement of riches and admiration, while finding her unapologetic nature, unearthed in a variation of words, limericks, and humor.
Richard E. Grant pulsates off the screen, grabbing the viewer by the collar and demanding our compliance. Jack Hock is a role that Grant nearly had to create from scratch. The real Jack Hock, now deceased, exists now only on the pages of Lee Israel’s memoir. A picture of Hock was not available for Grant to draw from before shooting. What he was left with were descriptions and a spiritual guide within his own acting persona, that manages to deliver one of the year’s richest turns.
There’s a potentially fantastic film buried among the tropes, and at times, uneventful scenery. Its attempt is just too mired in its cold persona; it’s hard to accept the invitation to join Lee Israel in her dark, and twisted world. The amiable dramedy is hugely sophisticated, and because of that, can roll over the bumps in the story. Heller’s direction, as felt in her last effort “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” encapsulates a stale-like quality, that doesn’t allow certain viewers to engage or remain in the world she’s creating. In fairness, Heller is delivering a biopic about a dreadful person, but there should be a way to find the compassion and humanity in a flawed figure (see Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street”).
Lee Israel’s depiction in the film is the truest sense of entitlement and privilege, which is devastating to watch as a person of color. Here we have a woman who committed crimes. Not just forging a few letters, but even stealing and then destroying evidence in her own conviction. And then in a scene where she receives her punishment, Israel shares little remorse for her actions, instead wallowing on the idea of her former self.
You can only imagine if any person of color were put in that position, the book would have been thrown, along with a long-winded speech from the judge about repentance and justice. And then to drive it all home, and dig the stake deeper into our hearts, callous and indifferent comments following her light conviction just show feelings about where she belongs in this world. And what’s her reward? A best-selling memoir about her scandals and grievances, all peppered with a mean remark to a dying old friend as they walk away. The film provides an example of this imbalance in the justice system, without setting out to do so. As someone who thought of these things often through the film, it was worth mentioning.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” may not be able to rise entirely off the page and screen, but it contributes enough examples of an imperfect operation of race and class, and how we observe these manners. McCarthy and Grant are two peas in a pod, sensationally committed and ruthlessly dedicated, and should be the full worth of an admission ticket.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” screened at the Middleburg Film Festival, is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, and opens in theaters on Oct. 19.