Literary Deception

A delicious and devilish real-life story, Can You Ever Forgive Me?feels like the sort of American indie movie from a bygone era. It’s a biopic of a biographer, a literary forger, Lee Israel. Played by Melissa McCarthy, who abandons her crude comic persona for something more maudlin, Israel is a down-on-her-luck writer living in New York in the early 1990s. Out of work and almost out of money – and with a sick cat to pay expensive vet’s bills for – she’s been penning a book about actress Fanny Brice, with little excitement from her agent. 

When she comes across an original letter by Brice in a library book – promptly stealing it and selling it to a second-hand bookstore – it opens up a life of not-so-petty crime to her. Realising there’s a lucrative market for such literary collectibles Israel is soon conjuring up her own fake missives, from the likes of NoëlCoward and Dorothy Parker. She has a talent for it too, even buying old typewriters and tracing over signatures to add to the authentic feel of these forgeries. 

Really, though, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a crime story. Rather it’s about success and failure, friendship and betrayal. The best scenes are all between McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, who plays Jack Hock, a barfly and small-time hustler she befriends, carouses with and eventually ropes into her forgery schemes. Thirty-two years after playing the ultimate screen drunk in Withnail and I, Grant has finally unearthed a companion worthy to sit alongside his iconic boozy thespian.

Both he and McCarthy, who also excels here, fully merit the awards attention they’ve been getting (both are up for Oscars), although credit is also due to screenwriters Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener (who was originally attached to direct), and eventual director Marielle Heller, who previously made her debut with the accomplished The Diary of a Teenage Girl. While there’s delight to be had in watching Israel and Hock get soused and drown their sorrows, Heller and her writers ensure you will spy the melancholy through the optics. Never giving in to sentimentality, this is a wonderful film.

James Mottram

Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens on 1 February. For more details, click here.

1. All images stills from
Can You Ever Forgive Me?