London Film Festival: Can You Ever Forgive Me

Writers:  Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty

Director: Marielle Heller

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Some of the world’s most audacious crimes have been carried out by a single individual able to fool the experts. While we most often think of forgery as an art crime where famous works are directly copied and sold as originals, Lee Israel applied the same logic to literary letters, impersonating the style of scores of famous writers and forging their signature at the bottom.

Adapted from her own memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Metakes its title from a frequent Dorothy Parker saying. This is the story of how Israel conceived and executed one of the greatest ever literary frauds, circulating around 400 falsified letters among dealers and collectors with the help of her friend Jack Hock. Premiering at the London Film Festival, it explores Israel’s reason for doing it and, despite the fear of being caught, the thrill of making a sale.

In 1991 Lee Israel loses her job, her cat is sick and she’s months behind on her rent. A literary biographer with a previous New York Times bestseller, Israel’s work is no longer fashionable and even her agent won’t return her calls. A chance find in the library leads to a temporary injection of funds and after she encounters Jack Hock in a bar the idea of forging letters is born. As the money rolls in dealers become suspicious and Israel must change her tactics, but with the FBI on her tail will it be enough?

It is wonderful to see a Hollywood film about a middle-aged woman with an intelligent career given an important, multi-layered story to tell. There are only so many mindless Lara Croft reboots or generic girlfriends to play, so a wider interest in all kinds of women’s lives is hugely welcome. And goodness did the then 51-year old Israel have a story to tell, one filled with desperation, loneliness, luck and an incredible talent put to nefarious means for the most complicated reasons.

In Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s screenplay you wholeheartedly feel Israel’s world close-in around her and empathise with her plight despite never quite liking or agreeing with her. She is, however, portrayed not as a winsome hero like Robert Redford’s charming bank robber in The Old Man and the Gun, but as a crabby, difficult and often caustic personality actively refusing to get close to anyone but her cat, struggling to keep her head above water and in pain – in short, a realistic and rounded female lead.

Melissa McCarthy plays down her usual bombast to deliver a performance of real depth and engagement. She makes us root for Israel without warming to her, to be mightily impressed by her literary talent if not by her use of it, and above all to see the real woman behind the crime, a complicated human being who barely understood herself but loved the sensation of hoodwinking the industry.

As her actual partner-in-crime, Richard E. Grant draws on his old Withnail days, pouring every ounce of flamboyance into his shameless and hedonistic Jack. There is a real comic chemistry between this grumpy odd couple who refuse to voice how much they care for their friendship despite coming to rely quite significantly on the emotional attachment they form.

Director Marielle Heller maintains an entertaining balance between Israel’s personal circumstances and her forging career, keeping our attention at every point by switching-up the sense of jeopardy as different threats dominate Israel’s life. Yet Heller still finds time to say everything she wants us to take away from Can You Ever Forgive Me, the many untold stories about women of all ages, the sass necessary to undertake such an incredible crime and the fact that everyone no matter how rude or criminal needs a friend. More like this please!

Release Date 1 February 2019 

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