When we’re watching a film and we find a character particularly captivating, we often credit the actor. And that’s fair; their contribution isn’t exactly small. But it can be easy to forget the effect that writing and direction have on characters, to dismiss “writing” as just plot points and jokes, or to think “direction” merely means the types of shots used.
At this year’s Oscars, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? has only been nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor. And again, that’s fair: Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant are both superb in this true-life tale of Lee Israel (McCarthy), a writer fallen on hard times who starts making money by forging famous authors’ personal letters.
McCarthy has never shied away from playing disagreeable characters (just look at the poster for TAMMY). Yet her acting here feels more raw than ever, whether it’s her unabashedly drab appearance, her explicit vocabulary or her almost movie-long lack of a smile. All she wants is a comfortable life, and you fully believe that because nothing about her makes anyone comfortable other than herself. Then there’s Grant, who instantly puts the audience at ease as Jack Hock, Israel’s flamboyant drinking buddy. He can be just as amoral and misanthropic as Lee, but there’s a glint in his eye and a spring in his step that makes him far more traditionally charming. It’s not only the Oscar-recognised actors who are great either. Dolly Wells (best known for TV’s SOME GIRLS) deserves credit for holding her own against McCarthy, with a sweet yet subtle performance as the book dealer who becomes Israel’s potential love interest.
But as excellent as the cast is, these characters wouldn’t truly shine if not for the solid production they’re in. Literally shine, in some cases: in a film that mostly uses a rather grey and downbeat palette, Grant first appears bathed in the orange glow of the light above the bar, signifying very clearly how vibrant (if flickeringly so) his character will be.
The characterisation of Israel is similarly instant in its precision, which is again due to a balance of strength in performance, direction and script. Her first scene depicts her at work in a dark office, swigging on an alcoholic beverage and swearing at everyone – including her boss. We then see her attend a party where she turns two drinks into one bigger drink, steals some toilet roll and a coat, then promptly leaves. It’s beautifully economic storytelling, not to mention crackingly funny.
As the film enters its second act, the tense editing and hyper-sensitive soundscape begin to mimic a heist movie. It all builds towards a poignantly bittersweet finale, where characters end up dooming themselves with their own unbreakable bad habits. There’s a speech towards the end that feels a little cheesy and drawn-out, but that’s the only moment that any character feels less than a real person. And obviously the actors have a hand in that. But the rest of the film is good too.