Some actors tend to be cast for a single style of performance, and this has been especially true of Melissa McCarthy, who is known to most as a comedienne, comic actress and occasional Saturday Night Live host. It is refreshing, then, to see her proving she also has extraordinary dramatic ability. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the memoir of the biographer-turned-forger Lee Israel (McCarthy) who, together with partner-in-crime Jack Hock (Richard E Grant), fabricated over 400 letters by deceased celebrities in order to revive her equally deceased writing career – until her conviction in 1993. Many of Israel’s works were so expertly written that collectors never realised the difference.

Initially there appears to be a tonal clash between McCarthy’s sombre portrayal of Lee and Grant’s almost satirically flamboyant Jack. However, as the film continues and the duo spend more time together, their chemistry quickly develops. The pair’s interactions support the film’s central themes of mimicry and identity: Jack copies Lee’s orders repeatedly when the pair go out to eat and drink, and they both amuse themselves several times by making prank calls claiming to be other people.

Even before her initial meeting with Jack, Lee steals a coat from the cloakroom at a writers’ party – literally taking the mantle of a successful writer from somebody else. Combined with her exceptional ability to imitate other writers, Lee’s crisis of identity is shown: she has spent her life writing about (and as) other people and as a result has very few of her own personality traits left to share with others. This comes to a head when a potential relationship with bookseller Anna fails due to Lee’s inability to open herself up out of fear of who Anna might see in her.

McCarthy’s performance is the standout of the film, turning the abrasive, antisocial Lee into a likeable character. She expertly switches between a harsh, unforgiving exterior and a lonely-but-caring interior (even though Lee’s cat Jersey is the only one to see it) as well as injecting enough dark humour to perfectly round Lee out as a prickly but ultimately sympathetic character. Grant provides an excellent complement to her as well in Jack – a cheerful extrovert to complement the introverted Lee. In addition, he never feels completely eclipsed by McCarthy, since the two share a bond but few personality traits, which allows both to shine equally without a feeling of one outdoing the other.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an excellent character study of a lonely writer, yet simultaneously a warning about the consequences of only living through the experiences of others. The criminality of her work aside, it is because she has an experience of her own (however ironic the fact that it is fabricating others’ may seem) that she is able to begin to open herself to others. Adding in stellar performances from the leading duo pushes the film even further, and makes it one of the best biopics in recent years.

5 stars

Image credit: Movie DB

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