This is a heist movie about a biographer who was quite well known in the New York literary circle of writers, agents and publishers for the first few decades of her career, until she limited her range of subjects and exhausted her talent. By the early 1990s, Lee Israel had allowed her misanthropic views and general eccentricity to overwhelm her output and creativity.
Unable to keep up with her rent at an apartment in Manhattan, and short of cash to pay the vet to examine her beloved cat, she started selling the rare books she owned. But they didn’t fetch much. Then she stumbled on the world of memorabilia collectors and dealers who were willing to pay a tidy sum for personal letters written by famous deceased writers and celebrities.
Israel (Melissa McCarthy) had another talent that she entertained herself with. She could inhabit the personae of writers like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward and cleverly imitate some of their style, wit, and aphorisms. Using appropriately aged stationary and a set of old typewriters, she started forging letters signed by them and was able to hawk them to supposedly discerning collectors.
Israel was able to keep up this con job for a surprisingly long time, until the first shadow of doubt clouded her sales activity. Then she got herself an accomplice, her only friend, appropriately named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a hustler with an English accent to whom working the avenues and streets of Manhattan was second nature.
Empathy for a failed writer who uses her native intelligence and extensive knowledge of writers to scam relatively small amounts of money for her survival is easy to achieve. The problem arises when we view this film in the context of the trolling and disinformation online that we live with today; much of it posing as documentation.
The misdeeds of Lee Israel were in the print world, where the faking of some 400 letters, while pretty extensive, was a crime that could be detected, and corrective action taken. Indeed, the documents she faked were identified, announced as forgeries and removed from the market.
But in 2008 when Israel published her confessional book with the same title as this film, she lived in the prism of the digital world, where fake news, including authorship, is an epidemic that distorts our perception of reality. Her publishers, in the print medium, would have been aware, somewhat cynically, that this was a story that celebrated a successful plagiarist. They apparently had no qualms about this.
It is amazing that through all three perspectives – print, digital and film - the director of this movie does not detect any complex moral conundrum that she needs to construct on the issue of an intelligent and literate person faking aspects of the world of dead writers.
Instead, ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is presented as a straightforward period piece set in the 1990s. Narrated as a tale of crime and redemption, it is an absorbing watch. But it certainly could have done with a more layered treatment, more in consonance with the world of disinformation that we inhabit.