Awards season is always a bevy of riches for film lovers, but one of the reals joys to come out of the 2018 season was Marielle Heller’s wondrous ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’, a biopic that avoided the recent problems with the genre by being both essential and beautifully made. Featuring a pair of extraordinary performances and directed with great care and generosity, it deserved all the acclaim it received and probably more - a deeply human and humane story of loneliness, survival and the need to create.
Based on Lee Isreal’s autobiography of the same name, the film explores Lee (Melissa McCarthy, ‘Spy’) and her transition from struggling writer to literary criminal in the early 90s New York. In a desperate attempt to pay her bills and her rent, she begins to forge personal letters from famous figures, a venture that begins successfully before spiralling out of control.
Unlike most biographical stories, Isreal’s is ripe for adaptation, not only because of the mechanics of her story but the relationships and fears at its heart. Lee is a tremendously lovely woman, only finding solace in her ageing cat and her new friendship with fabulous drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, ‘Dom Hemingway’), and her forgeries not only give her an income but a purpose. Her isolation is palpable, a woman lost in the chasm of both the city and the literary world, and she responds with anger and resentment, pushing away any potential friends or lovers apart from Jack, the only person as disagreeable as her willing to cling to her as his life raft. They are also linked by their sexuality, the film offering a wonderful portrait of the ways in which queer people can find one another and create new families and communities where they feel they belong and can be valued. It also addresses that intense frustration that comes from being creative but with no outlet for that creativity, the terror at having something to say but no one willing to hear it, the anger at being an artist unable to create art. In her letters, Lee finds the outlet she’s been looking for, and the dance with danger she undertakes in the process only makes it more satisfying.
What Marielle Heller brings to ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is an impeccable sense of craft and enormous generosity. Her handling of the tonal and narrative machinations of Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s erudite screenplay is masterful, striking that fine balance of sympathising with her subject without endorsing her actions. If this film had intended to mock or laugh at Lee, it couldn’t have been as funny and as moving as it is, but Heller moves with a gentle hand, carefully crafting a visual and aural exploration of Lee’s inner life as a lens through which to view her actions and understand them. It seems strange to complement a filmmaker on having a love for their subject, but the beauty, rigour and uncompromising clarity with which Heller tells Lee’s story only highlights how important that quality is and how remarkable it can be when done right.
She also creates a framework within which Melissa McCarthy can deliver her finest performance to date. She’s simply exhilarating as Lee, weaponising her timing and charm and marrying it with Lee’s anger and impatience. McCarthy has been threatening us with such a performance for years, small moments betraying something truly remarkable waiting for the opportunity, and this role allows her to bring it all together and reveal her as the extraordinary actor she is. The symbiosis between her and Heller is a director/actor match made in heaven, with everything in the film built to allow her to be the best she can possibly be. The same can be said for Richard E. Grant, who turns in the kind of performance we haven’t seen from him in years, a joyous and passionate counterpoint to Lee’s crushing doubt and spite. Together, McCarthy and Grant light up the screen, an old Hollywood dream team to be reckoned with, bursting with energy and life mixed with sadness and desperation. They’re supported with a wonderful ensemble of performances, including great work from Dolly Wells, Stephen Spinella, Jane Curtin and Marc Evan Jackson.
It brews that intoxicating mix of first-rate entertainment with a witty and moving story of human beings starved for connection and expression.
‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is an absolute delight - beautifully written and directed and designed and shot and edited and performed. It brews that intoxicating mix of first-rate entertainment with a witty and moving story of human beings starved for connection and expression. McCarthy and Grant whole-heartedly deserved their Oscar nominations, as did Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty for their screenplay, but that the film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture is a pity and Marielle Heller not being nominated for her direction is a crime. ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is one of those films that will stand the test of time, and will deservedly in years to come be considered a quiet and quintessential classic.
PICTURE & SOUND
For such an Oscar-nominated and critically acclaimed film, it comes as a great shock to see ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ receiving a DVD-only release. It’s absurd that we can get rubbish like ‘Holmes and Watson’ in high definition but not a great film like this. Twentieth Century Fox in Australia isn’t to blame though - the film was initially only released on DVD in the U.S. before receiving a last-minute Blu-ray release. I doubt that with the small scale of the home entertainment market in Australia that we’ll see a similar move, but one can hope.
As far as DVD releases go, the 480p 2.40:1 transfer is strong, especially in its handling of the film’s warm colour palette. The image is clear and stable, and without too many noticeable issues. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is likewise admirable, showcasing the careful sound design of the film and striking a great balance between it and the dialogue.
The disc has a small but sturdy collection of bonus material, beginning with some outtakes and deleted scenes (9:26). Most of them are entertaining but inessential, though there’s a great one where Lee tries to be a personal assistant to a rich socialite with humorously disastrous results. A series of promotional featurettes offer a rudimentary look at the making of the film, including:
- Elevator Pitch (1:35), where Heller describes the plot of the film
- Becoming Lee Israel (1:38), focusing on McCarthy’s transformation into Lee
- Likely Friends (1:39), on how McCarthy and Grant developed the on-screen relationship between Lee and Jack
- A Literary World (2:06), on how the filmmakers recreated the literary collectables world of the pre-internet early 90s
All of it is pretty standard EPK material, but there are a few nuggets in there. The best feature though is the audio commentary with Heller and McCarthy, a spirited track that offers a great overview of the making of the film, their working relationship and the care that went into the film itself. The collection is rounded off with an image gallery and the film’s theatrical trailer.