At the end of the decade, media seems to be moving further away from the noughties’ nihilism. Perhaps audiences need a break from the relentless inhumanity highlighted in 24/7 news cycles. Perhaps a rejection of cynicism in favour of kindness in our storytelling restores some order – if not meaning – to the uncertain world. Perhaps there is a quiet radicalism to this choice, especially when it is not the easiest option.
In cinema, Marielle Heller has emerged as a champion of the unique difficulties and sympathies of human connection. Heller is a relative newcomer on the directorial scene; after training as an actress and working in theatre and television for decades, she broke into screenwriting and directing with her 2015 debut feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which premiered in 2018 and released here in early 2019, is only her second project and cements the former performer’s position as a champion of the human, the mundane, and the choice of kindness. Like all her work to date, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not ambitious on paper when compared to Martin Scorsese’s de-aged epics or Ari Aster’s rich symbolism, but its comfort in staying with the uncomfortable, the lonely, and the repressed speak to the richness and complexity of the human condition.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the memoirs of Lee Israel, a New York literary force with a dwindling audience for her biographies of Fanny Brice and similar artistic luminaries of the city’s bygone era. With veterinary bills to pay for her cat – her only companion – she turns to forgery, inventing colourful postscripts to letters from the very people her agent insisted were culturally dead. These inventions are witty, funny, and casually intimate, so cleverly uncontrived that their veracity and humanity is accepted on instinct. They stand in direct contrast to Israel’s tendency to withdraw in a self-sabotaging cycle, burning romantic and professional bridges in the process. Of course, the ruse is not kept up forever, and the film hurdles to its tragicomic denouement as archivists find holes in the lovingly constructed stories.
The performances Heller elicits from Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant are arguably career bests. The SNL regular allows Israel’s vulnerability and oft-denied desire for connection – let alone love – show through the cracks in the writer’s causticity. Furthermore, even at her most acerbic and fraudulent, McCarthy maintains Israel’s dignity, never letting her drown in her bitterness or booze. As Jack Hock, Israel’s partner in crime and drink, Grant proves a master of comedy and pathos. While Hock initially comes across as the more ebullient and outgoing of the two, Grant clearly defines Hock’s perception of himself, how he wants to be perceived by others, and the hidden insecurities underlying both. Their scenes together are joyous, yet always overshadowed by the weight of lonely years made tangible through the nuanced script, here adapted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. Their exploits steer clear of easy salaciousness or cruelty – even when baiting a bookseller who snubbed Israel earlier in the film, the righteousness of the urge plays into the film’s innate good nature and kind heart.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? further anchors its warmth through a scenic and sound design that highlights the living, breathing, and long-remembered humanity of New York City. Heller’s vision of a 1990s city winter is decidedly shabby, but more beautiful for it. Undying glamour comes through its warm lighting, helped along by a melancholic, romantic score that evokes Old Hollywood, vaudeville, and the stars Lee Israel idolises and inhabits in her letters. While many films utilise New York’s imposition and impartiality to highlight their protagonists’ struggles, here the city itself seems to be on Israel’s side. It too aches with the memory of times gone by, refusing to leave a single soul behind.
Alongside masterful performances and tone, Can You Ever Forgive Me? succeeds in its interrogation of not only its subjects’ lives but the interconnectedness of their stories to each other and the legendary lives Israel inserts herself into. Biopics are a tired genre, often becoming more about ticking the boxes of an extraordinary life than seeking any narrative strength or human truth. On the contrary, Heller focuses the storytelling on this one epoch of Israel’s life; her previous successes and life after her trial and conviction are inconsequential in this moment. Even the central biographer – forever enamoured of Fanny Brice and Dorothy Parker – seeks that human connection to and understanding of her idols instead of seeing them as just another story she can sell.
This invention and forgery itself becomes meaningful only as a backdrop to Israel’s own self-discovery. The most important scene in Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the climactic reckoning. It is devoid of courtroom drama – the room is empty save for Israel, her lawyer, the judge, and two members of the prosecution. There are no histrionics at the ruling. Instead, as she awaits judgement, Israel reads a small statement confessing her guilt and half lamenting, half celebrating that – for the first time in a long time – she has been proud of her work. The high tragedy is that of finding a voice in a place one does not belong, of the pain of ‘opening [her] work to criticism’, and of wanting desperately to be known but finding the reality too frightening. Israel’s written statement has little in common with the eloquence and wit with which she imbues her fake postscripts; she instead states plainly, honestly, how she lost the only friends who ‘tolerated’ her, one a cat and one ‘an idiot’. Stripping the words and their delivery to the unadorned truth ends Israel’s saga in dignity rather than disgrace.
There is an argument to be made that a story’s power is in its telling rather than its facts, and history’s revisions are often more palatable than the truth. As Can You Ever Forgive Me? ends, Israel writes her way forward, with a new cat and a mending relationship with Hock, and Heller juxtaposes fact and fiction to highlight the place each holds in the world. Hock may request that Israel make him ’29 with perfect skin’ in her memoirs, and the collectibles dealer may be wholly confident that the framed letter in his window is 100% Dorothy Parker. It does not matter that Israel and the audience know differently; somehow, everything and everyone is at peace. Amidst ever-changing narratives and struggles to define one’s place therein, Can You Ever Forgive Me? celebrates the flaws, foibles, and the fictions that sustain humanity.