Wednesday 30 January 2019

Woman of letters: "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

Of the films either there or thereabouts as we go into the final furlongs of the 2018-19 awards season, Can You Ever Forgive Me? can't lay claim to the biggest names, the greatest sociopolitical import, nor the most Spotifiable soundtrack. What it does have is a pretty good, well-told story, and a conflicted, tragicomic character, which might just ensure it rattles round inside the viewer's head longer than at least half of this year's actual Best Picture nominees. That story - adapted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from their subject's 2008 memoir, and brought to the screen by The Diary of a Teenage Girl director Marielle Heller - is a true yet tall one: how the New York literary and antiquities scenes were suckered by one Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a struggling biographer who'd reached dowdy middle-age without much to show for her labours, save a cramped, flystrewn flat and an ailing cat. (No film in recent memory has been more primed to receive sympathetic notices from jobbing critics - or, indeed, writers of any stripe.) With demand for her proposed Fanny Brice biography dwindling as we join her in 1991, Israel has been reduced to dodging her creditors en route to daytime drinking sessions. There, at least, she gains a companion in ageing gay rake Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), and with him an idea to make some easy money: faking letters by dead celebs and fobbing them off on interested parties. Vintage typewriters are purchased. Signatures are sourced and forged. The con is on.

It is, then, the story of a swindler, and not a terribly charming one at that: there's a marked contrast between the elegantly witty wordsmiths Israel impersonates on the page and the grimily mouthed and cardiganned individual she presents as in person. The film's small triumph is to suck us into her scam; we become a willing, sometimes giggling co-conspirator. Yes, you could appropriate Lee Israel's actions as an act of revenge against a literary Establishment prepared at the time to pay the likes of Tom Clancy advances of $3m per book, as a blow being struck for the perpetually overlooked middle-aged woman. Equally, though, the film lets on that its heroine's deceptions may not have been as noble as all that, and as likely to have been fuelled by self-preservation as anything else. McCarthy - who demonstrated she was a very fine and subtle dramatic actress in such curios as 2007's The Nines before 2011's Bridesmaids invited her to shit in a sink - skilfully reveals the pathos and desperation underpinning the writer's waspiness as she sets out on this shortcut to self-improvement; at the very least, you'll come away understanding why Lee Israel decided to work this angle. The letters buy her food, friends, a measure of professional respect (for conjuring connections out of thin air), even an exterminator to delouse her apartment - but it's all a fraud, made worse by the fact she can't take credit for the bon mots she's putting in the mouths of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. Somewhere in the background of this tale, there lurks the tragic spectre of misdirected promise: the wasted potential of a woman who could have been a standalone great writer if she'd only applied herself to the novel she kept kicking into the long grass. (Again: the press screenings must have overflowed with rueful chuckles of recognition.)

Yet Holofcener and Heller remain crowdpleasers above all else. The barbed and painful ironies of Lee Israel's life are visible in the subtext of each scene, but the film overall is as shabbily convivial as daytime drinking itself: good, literate company, with jazzy soundtrack cuts in near-permanent rotation, and our immediate field of vision filled with individuals with whom you'd merrily share a sharpener or two. Grant is fun both as a comic foil and a marker of just how low our heroine has fallen; and there are deft contributions from Jane Curtin (as Lee's understandably weary agent), Dolly Wells as a trusting bookseller with whom Lee shares what looks like a tentative first date, and from the very great Anna Deavere Smith, whose fleeting late cameo reminds us what it might have been like to cohabit with the ever-difficult protagonist. (Heller demonstrates admirable honesty in retaining such a straggly, easily deletable scene.) As the coda neared, I realised I hadn't been quite as knocked out as many colleagues have been; what the film struck me as was a continuation of that variety of intelligent, well-crafted picture the studios turned out as standard in the 70s/80s/90s, and for which we're now expected to be pitifully grateful in that brief window before superhero season starts up once more. Despite McCarthy's efforts, Can You Ever Forgive Me? can't quite make the leap beyond crisp, well-turned anecdote: the stakes may well appear low to those outside the metropolitan media bubble, the emotion diffuse and hard to place until the final moments. (I'll continue to lament that more voters haven't seen Tamara Jenkins' Private Life, a more roundly rewarding depiction of Manhattan despair.) There is, however, a slyness about Heller's film - not least a way with words - that its subject would doubtless have appreciated, albeit begrudgingly.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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