FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

Directed by Marielle Heller
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E Grant, Dolly Wells
Released 1 February

Lee Israel, portrayed by a glum-looking Melissa McCarthy, sits at her desk, fingers poised unmoving above the hum of an electric typewriter. Words escape her, the muse sending no inspiration, and still she writes. The real-life biographer is miserable at the world and its waning literacy. She mourns the death of the author, pining for an era when Noël Coward and Lillian Hellman reeled off witticisms while juggling a glass of Scotch and endless cigarettes. It is a sentiment with which I sympathise, surely being one of the few critics left who bashes out her reviews on an Olympia Splendid 66.

This period is now over. In Cambridge, we can cling to this glamorous vision of the past, hosting cocktail-fuelled soirées torn straight from the pages of Truman Capote. For Lee, in 1990s Manhattan, this fantasy has moved from sordid letters to the more tech-savvy lovers of a Nora Ephron rom-com. She is able to print paper headed with Dorothy Parker's address because the shop assistant believes that is Lee's own name. On the surface, she starts to forge her correspondence for money. We soon realise it is a chance for her to live in an age she loves, one that celebrated wisecracks and epistolary musings.

It is certainly a dream shared by director Marielle Heller, for Can You Ever Forgive Me? is smattered with delightful nods to the American greats. A beautifully orchestrated sequence dances between typewriters from different times and places to reflect the personalities of the writers Lee wishes the buyers to believe wrote them. In doing so, she proves herself a genius of recreative writing, the sort of literary impression work that could, in another period, have made her an honest fortune.

It is through this affection that Heller creates appeal for the film. There is something intriguing by the ease with which Lee smuggles genuine letters out of the Yale archives or from the New York Public Library. Perhaps these institutions trust academics to be truthful people (more fool them), and the fact that 'authenticators' can buy into fakes thanks to their convincing charm and uniqueness makes them worthy of little more than pity. It causes the mind to race - what if the memo that shifted the argument of my dissertation was a forgery? Would I take it out if only I knew that it was? Have I missed a trick by not replicating documents in the UL to fund my degree?


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Perhaps this is the most tantalising aspect of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, that it is (mostly) true. Aspects are no doubt embellished for the sake of tension - but this is never trying to be a Tom Clancy crime thriller. It is a moving reflection on art, the creative mind, and what it can be capable of in times of desperation. Some of us prefer the simple pleasures of reading Parker in bed, mouthing along to the immortal lines of The Little Foxes, and taking care of the cat. 

McCarthy does all this with sensitivity and earnestness, although her Lee is undeniably horrid. She is a perfect match for Richard E Grant's lost drug dealer, himself a man born in the wrong decade and channelling the sexuality repressed in the writings of Lee's many personae. Both bring necessary humour and tragedy to the film, taking bantering comfort in the fact that they have proved incompatible with the rest of society. Neither of them find the sugar-coated Ephron love cinemagoers assume everyone was lapping up in the nineties, refusing us a sanitised Hollywood ending. Theirs is an unlikely screen double act for the ages.

I have just downed my last sip of port and finally managed to get the 'V' key unstuck. There are many reasons why most of us write on computers nowadays, typewriters like mine gathering dust as curiosities in an antiques shop. Can You Ever Forgive Me? reminds me why I keep it clean and well-lubricated. Not to embark on a criminal career (although the prospect is tempting), but to empathise with the writers and artists I admire. Writing this review now, and thanks to Heller's bittersweet film, it has brought me somewhat closer to the fascinating mind of Lee Israel.

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