Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller) 4 out of 4 stars
Oh, what it would be like to be one of the greats.
It’s a feeling that most artists have probably wondered to themselves at some point or other. The allure of achieving a godlike status in your creative endeavors and the apparent benefits that come with it: to never beg for money, to never beg for your work to be seen, to never beg for love, to never beg for companionship. And yet, it always seems to feel further away the closer one gets. Not for Lee Israel, real life writer and lead character of Marielle Heller’s latest Can You Ever Forgive Me?, whose ostracism from the literary world forces her to step directly into the shoes of the classical figures that that same world glorifies in the form of literary forgery in order to make ends meet. As Israel navigates her newfound spark of inspiration, one thing becomes very clear: this is unexpectedly one of the most earnestly sympathetic films one is likely to see this year and possibly in their lifetimes.
There are not many films that understand loneliness like this one. Israel is a woman who is unable to remedy the dejection she feels from the literary world with the desperation she has to belong in it. She writes memoir after memoir, opting to become lost in the world of others before facing the world of her own. Melissa McCarthy’s presence as Israel bleeds into every corner of this film, creating a New York that seems to contain only the realm of her existence. McCarthy, like Israel, doesn’t seem to match up to the archetype that their industry is selling, and it is so refreshing to see both of these women receive the space they deserve.
Israel longs for love in her isolated landscape. Richard E. Grant, as her theatrical, charming, but equally lost new friend, fills this role flawlessly, acting as a perfect foil to McCarthy and forging one of the most tender queer friendships in film history while doing so. Watch out for a particular cleaning scene between them that crystalizes this film’s effortless realism. Her need for companionship doesn’t end there. The relationship between her and her cat is bound to rank amongst the most endearing of the pet and owner cinematic ilk, demonstrating the indispensable unconditional love that a pet can offer and highlighting her discreet humanism through the lens of an animal.
Heller’s smooth direction and Brandon Trost’s strikingly understated cinematography are at service to the characters throughout every frame. Classism, ageism, sexism, the AIDS epidemic, the fickleness of the art world. Everything in Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s airtight script is treated with an assuredly pointed hand, but never an apolitical one. It is the simplest visual gestures that are continuously making the most powerful statements in this film. Their brand of caustic comedy cuts through any of the sentimental undercurrents while still treating its subjects with full respect. It’s fascinating to watch.
This film gives Lee Israel the love and recognition she always longed for but was only able to receive under the guise of others. While it is never afraid to show Israel in all her untidiness, rudeness, and insecurity, it is, above all, never afraid to show her empathy. Whether she is relatably embarrassed by the messiness of her apartment or is saying the wrong words to the bookshop owner she’s interested in or is giving her idols the intimate voice most everyone wishes they had, she is undoubtedly human, and I think we can all forgive her for that.