Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in a scene from the movie Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in a scene from the movie Can You Ever Forgive Me? Mary Cybulski

MOVIE REVIEW: McCarthy shines in dramatic role

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

 

Director: Marielle Heller

Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant

Running time: 106 minutes

Verdict: There's nothing fraudulent about the forgers' performances

 

FOUR STARS

 

Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy. On paper, it would appear to be an unlikely screen coupling.

But the louche Englishman turns out to be a disarmingly imperfect match for the gifted physical comedienne in her first really substantial dramatic lead.

Melissa McCarthy shines in her first substantial dramatic role.
Melissa McCarthy shines in her first substantial dramatic role.

They draw the best out in each other. Or rather the worst - in all its shabby, defiant glory.

McCarthy excels in "unsympathetic" roles. But liberated from the need to make her audience laugh, she turns the volume right down, favouring nuance over exaggeration.

Here, the foul-mouthed misanthropy is more layered. You are aware of the loneliness, vulnerability and self-doubt underneath.

It's a truthful, unembellished performance that doesn't so much play against type as unearth its emotional foundations.

I'm guessing Lee Israel, the late celebrity biographer upon whose memoir the film is based, would have approved - despite the hair, costume and make-up choices, which are less flattering than her photographs.

Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of A Teenage Girl) tells Israel's story (adapted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty) without whimsy, quirkiness or sugar coating.

McCarthy's version of the author is plain, brown and antagonistically mousy. She dresses in off-the-rack men's jackets and trousers.

The comedienne plays celebrity biographer Lee Israel.
The comedienne plays celebrity biographer Lee Israel.

The only living creature Israel exhibits any real affection towards is the ancient black and white cat who shares her Manhattan apartment.

Having once made it on to The New York Time's bestseller list, the struggling author is now three months behind on her rent.

Painstakingly researched, well-crafted biographies about interesting characters have fallen out of fashion.

A raging alcohol habit, and an unfortunate disposition towards biting the hands that feed her, aren't helping matters any.

In desperation, Israel sells a precious note from Katharine Hepburn to a collector of memorabilia. And this sparks a shift in career direction.

The skills Israel has mastered as a biographer mean she's remarkably good at impersonating other wordsmiths.

She begins forging letters by famous writers such as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. If they didn't actually write her lines, they should have.

They might seem like an odd couple, but they work well together on screen.
They might seem like an odd couple, but they work well together on screen.

Israel deems it to be some of the best work of her career.

But it's clear to both the character and her audience that she is living on borrowed time.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? doesn't have a crime caper's gloss. Israel was never going to get away with her criminal misdeeds.

Grant wears his character's reckless, lusty, self-destructive history lightly as Israel's partner-in-crime but there's no doubt that he's lived it. It's arguably his best, and certainly his most flamboyant, performance since Withnail and I.

Taking its cue from its two leading gadflies, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is clear eyed, unsentimental, and unexpectedly moving.

 

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? OPENS TOMORROW