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Toronto International Film Festival 2018: Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Review

Toronto International Film Festival 2018
Toronto International Film Festival 2018
Toronto International Film Festival 2018


Release Date: 19 October 2018
Director: Marielle Heller
Writer: Nicole Holofcener - Jeff Whitty
Cast: Melissa McCarthy - Richard E. Grant - Dolly Wells



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Posted September 16, 2018 by

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Toronto International Film Festival 2018: Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Review

Even before we meet Melissa McCarthy’s Lee Israel, we know her life is a mess. The down-on-her-luck writer gets fired from her dead-end job in the very first scene of Can You Ever Forgive Me?. This after being insulted by her much younger colleagues. But, Israel is not a character who is likely to wallow in her sorrow for too long.

Desperate for money, Israel attempts to convince her agent to support her next biography and fails miserably, leading her down an unlikely path. Despite life kicking her when she’s down, she rises to the challenge and does the unthinkable – she becomes a criminal. Assisting and encouraging her along the way is Richard E. Grant’s John Hock, also a former writer, who claims to be an acquaintance of Israel’s. They hit it off and inadvertently help each other out of a bad slump.

Unfortunately, like most good things, Israel’s new endeavour doesn’t last. But even in these dire circumstances, she never backs down.

Toronto International Film Festival 2018: Can You Ever Forgive Me? - Review

Courtesy of TIFF

Based on the biographer’s own memoir, Marielle Heller’s film is a delightful cinematic biography that is as enjoyable as it is heart-breaking. The pacing is even throughout, but Heller’s ability to build claustrophobic tension around Israel’s criminal acts, makes for an unnerving, immersive experience. The audience becomes Lee Israel while watching this film and much of that is down to the powerhouse performances of the lead cast.

Grant is a genuine delight to watch – he essentially plays the same kind of witty, charming British gentleman in every film, but his acting is so effortless that we easily forget him and instead become invested in John Hock and his successes and failures.

The supporting cast is full of familiar faces, all of whom are splendid scene-stealers. I must especially mention Israel’s cat in the film – she deserves an Oscar for her performance.

The standout, of course, is McCarthy. Stripped of the glamour of a Hollywood star, McCarthy looks authentically like the epitome of misfortune. The hits keep on coming for the film’s protagonist, but they are tempered by a nuanced, yet powerful performance by McCarthy. Her comedic appearances may have put her in the Hollywood spotlight, but she shines brightest in scenes with simmering emotions.

What I loved most about this film was how focused the script and direction were. We don’t get to see Israel’s life story, or her past achievements and failures – all of these are hinted at, and what we see is the person that she is during the timeline of the film. Far too many biopics fall into the trap of attempting to cram an entire life into two hours of film. Can You Ever Forgive Me? may draw similarities with last year’s I, Tonya, due to the fact that both protagonists are women embroiled in criminal activities, but the quality of the content of Can You Forgive Me? is far superior because of its concentrated storyline.

Courtesy of TIFF

Courtesy of TIFF

Heller’s direction is also devoid of histrionics, another pitfall many biopics incorporate. No loud screaming matches or fisticuffs; these characters are brimming with anger, excitement, fear, and apprehension and react with the kind of subtlety noticeable in regular people. The humour in the film, lifted from Israel’s own acerbic wit, adds to the personalities of the characters. The audience at the Toronto International Film Festival screening I was at guffawed often and it made for a thoroughly memorable cinematic experience.

I foresee this film being a huge part of the Awards circuit, and it will thoroughly deserve the nominations it will undoubtedly receive, especially, I hope, for the acting, direction and script. Plus, the soundtrack is unbelievable – it firmly places us in the world that Lee Israel inhabits.

There’s an authenticity to the characterization that compels the viewer to champion the protagonist in every scene. As biopics go, this one gives us a character who may not always be likeable, or conscientious, but one whose desperation reaches out of the screen to us. We have all been in similar circumstances as Israel is at the beginning of the film; so, while we may not condone her actions, we can certainly understand where they stemmed from.


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Lestat de Lioncourt
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