Can You Ever Forgive Me? played in South African theatres in February and March, living on the little attention it had garnered from its three Oscar nominations (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay). The second movie by American director Marielle Heller (her first was The Diary of a Teenage Girl, starring Kristen Wiig), it’s adapted from the confessional memoir of the same name by the author Lee Israel. In the late 80s, after writing a number of notable magazine profiles and celebrity biographies, Israel’s career fell into decline, aggravated by alcoholism and her particularly prickly personality. (A typical quote of Israel: “Macmillan wanted an unauthorized biography [of Estée Lauder] — warts and all. I accepted the offer though I didn't give a shit about her warts.”) In the movie, Lee (played by Melissa McCarthy) is told that she conceals herself so well behind her famous subjects that no one knows her well enough to pay her for her writing. She finds a surprising advantage in that, as she stumbles into the world of collectible literary memorabilia — where she successfully sells off her craftily composed forgeries of famous authors’ personal letters. She enlists the help of an ebulliently shady character, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who thaws her polar temperament a little, but is still slammed out by her impenetrable barriers to personal connection.
The specific thematic insights packed by Heller’s movie are not particularly original nor profound, but they ring persuasively and with authenticity: to connect with others, you must expose yourself; to encapsulate the kinds of personas embodied by famous modern authors is itself a form of imaginative art. Lee is somewhat justified to want credit for her compelling forgeries, and Israel received it in oblique ways in real life; her memoirs were received well by critics and the public alike, and her forgeries (most notably those of Noël Coward) were still taken as the real thing long after she’d been exposed. It’s still a remarkable thing to see a movie so frank about so many characters’ homosexuality, and Heller touchingly shows the need for intimacy and acceptance that is masked by flamboyant and impervious personas. In fact, Heller’s entire movie is sensitively wrought and finely grained, with surprisingly tender moments and an overflow of lively, fascinating personality. McCarthy’s performance is especially focused and dynamic, even if the character wishes to avoid those qualities at nearly any cost. Richard E. Grant is terrific fun, and brings an endearing dignity to even the most sordid aspects of Jack. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not itself a great movie, but it features the kind of careful attention, clear-sighted observation, and tenderness — call it love — that makes an artful storytelling not only worthwhile, but a great pleasure.