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Can You Ever Forgive Me? review - Melissa McCarthy is fantastic in darkly funny Lee Israel biopic


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Verdict: A touching biopic that deftly mixes melancholy and wit, Can You Ever Forgive Me? boasts a terrific performance from Melissa McCarthy as the late Lee Israel.

Lee Israel, as depicted in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, was a difficult woman to like. We first see her drinking at work, rudely snapping at co-workers and getting herself fired in the process. She's broke, and her alcoholism and anti-social behaviour make it difficult to hold a job or make friends.

In her despair, she turns to forgery, discovering that there's a lucrative market for personal letters from deceased authors and playwrights - and that she has a talent for imitating their voices and personalities. 

This very easily could have been a deeply unlikeable character, but the writing, directing and Melissa McCarthy's performance all strike a fine balance that ultimately paint Lee Israel as a sympathetic figure. 

The fake letters and correspondence aren't just a way to make ends meet, although they certainly do just that - Lee takes real pride in her work, which ironically is the kind of work that she isn't allowed to take pride in publicly. Her passion for writing is the key to making you root for her. 

Her only real friend throughout this ordeal (not counting her cat) is Jack Hock (Richard E.Grant), an openly gay free spirit who shares Lee's love of drink and disdain for people. The two make a wonderful pair and a lot of the movie's laughs come from the way they bounce off each other.

Jack's high energy and Lee's more grounded, cynical nature are a potent mix. It also helps that Grant and McCarthy are very talented and have terrific chemistry.

Lee herself was a lesbian and the movie explores both a past romantic relationship and a potential new one, as she starts to bond with bookseller and aspiring writer Anna (Dolly Wells). It's a touching, bittersweet love story that is doomed from the start - how can Lee be with someone that she lies to in order to sell her forgeries?

The story follows familiar beats. Lee's initial success with forgeries blossoms into a full-blown and lucrative criminal career - but it's not long before the whole thing falls apart. Collectors wise up to her fakes, the FBI gets involved and the knock down effect carries over to her personal life.

The familiar crime story framework works well for a couple reasons. One, it lets the movie focus on fleshing out the characters and two, the unusual nature of the crime itself does keep it from feeling stale. 

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a gut-busting, laugh-out-loud kind of comedy, nor a deeply moving drama that tries to say something profound about the human condition. It's a consistently entertaining, sweet little film with memorable quips and well-written characters you grow genuinely fond of by the end. 

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant both do great work here. McCarthy is of course, best known for her work in comedy and this performance ticks a few of those boxes, while also letting her show off some very impressive dramatic chops. A courtroom scene near the end that has Lee soberly reflect upon and take responsibility for everything that's happened is a particular standout. 

For fans of Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a must watch. It's also worth seeing by those that have dismissed her work in the past or judged her solely off the back of a few bad comedies - and if you're interested in Lee Israel's story, this is certainly a touching, witty tribute to a fascinating woman.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? arrives in UK cinemas on February 1st.

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