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It’s Withnail and her in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Knockout performances as Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant play endearingly odd and interesting characters in a true – and tragic – story

31 January, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
Directed by Marielle Heller
Certificate 15
☆☆☆☆

LIKE a slimmer version of the great Uncle Monty, Richard E Grant sashays his way into this marvellous film with an unquenchable thirst for substances that make him feel skewwhiff, a vocabulary of gorgeously pronounced swear words (can anyone else give the f-word such depth and richness?), and a tragic backstory that feels so much like Richard Griffiths’ seminal outing in Withnail and I that it feels like Grant is paying homage to his co-star.

Throw in a knockout performance by fellow lead Melissa McCarthy, and you could have had this these two characters doing absolutely nothing but sitting in a bar and I’d pay top dollar to watch it.

That this is a true – and tragic – story just makes it even more enjoyable.

Lee Israel was a biographer who had written a few well-received books. But times had become hard for her – her biography of Estée Lauder was a massive flop. Boozing was taking up more and more time and writing less and less, and she had split up with her girlfriend. Her Manhattan apartment was becoming more disgusting and her attempts to get interest in a biography of vaudeville legend Fanny Brice was proving to be harder than she wanted. Her agent didn’t like her and was blanking her calls. Next stop was Skid Row.

A mixture of events pushed her into finding what she thought was the answer to her problems: she found a letter from Brice folded inside a rare book she was using for research and pocketed it.

She had seen such pieces for sale at a store she had visited to sell some rare-ish books, and this, coupled with the rudeness of the shop assistant made her feel the place deserved some minor ripping off. It’s then that she embarks on a bit of a get-richer-quick scheme and commits some minor fraud. And it is her story, and that of a man called Nick Hock (Grant), who helped her, that this lovely piece is about.

Based on Lee’s 2008 memoir, it could be a bit of whitewash. The fact is there is not much of a twist or turn to keep you on your toes. The events of this film are wholly predictable –­ but who cares when you have such terrific leads playing such endearingly odd and interesting characters.

McCarthy is brilliant – believable, sad and harsh.

But Oscar-nominated Grant is a revelation – and all he really does is channel the same act we have seen from him time and again, his cheeky upper-class Englishman shtick – this is all a bit what Withnail did next. Who cares? These two could make watching paint dry interesting.

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