FilmSpace at London International Film Festival: Can You Ever Forgive Me; The Sisters Brothers; Stan & Ollie

Calum Cooper

Film Critic Calum Cooper concludes his London Film Festival reviews. Finishing off the festival’s run is a dramatic turn from Melissa McCarthy in Marielle Heller’s new biopic, Can You Ever Forgive Me, as well as a fun Western adventure in The Sisters Brothers, and, last but not least, the festival’s closing film, the biopic on Laurel and Hardy, Stan & Ollie.

Can You Ever Forgive Me – ★★★★☆

We writers want nothing more than for people to appreciate our writing in some capacity. This is something that Lee Israel strived for before, during, and after the years she spent orchestrating her criminal enterprises. Her 2008 confessional autobiography portrayed this in forlorn pride, and Marielle Heller’s latest film, based on that very autobiography, captures this in engaging, heartfelt, and humorous fashion.

Can You Ever Forgive Me sees Melissa McCarthy in one of her first dramatic roles since her breakthrough with 2011’s Bridesmaids. She plays Lee Israel, who was once a fairly successful biographer. But she hasn’t been published in years, is struggling financially, and has never liked people much, meaning her attempts to come back are often hindered by her own attitude. However, when working on her latest biography, she finds herself forging letters from the deceased writers of her biographies and selling them, partaking in a get rich quick scheme that bodes drastic consequences if uncovered.

McCarthy truly shines in her performance here. I wanted to see her flex her dramatic abilities for a while, and she delivers entirely. She taps into the darkness of her character very well, encouraging sympathy from us despite some of the terrible things she ends up doing. The very first scene establishes exactly what kind of character she is, and what her unfortunate circumstances are. Heller’s direction successfully allows us to see her situation from her eyes, exposing her vulnerabilities during small moments underneath her composition. McCarthy completely sells how complicated of a woman Israel was, while still getting several moments of snarky sarcasm and rudeness, the type of comedy that she excels at, for those still trying to shake off McCarthy’s comedic presence. Richard E. Grant’s amiable role as her friend Jack also adds some strong dynamic to balance out the film’s more forlorn feel.

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Heller’s vision is what gives the film its purpose and meaning however, presenting a case for the toughness that is the writing world, and the extremes some may go just to get their work read, let alone recognised. The world in which Israel lives is portrayed as grim and unforgiving through its dreary looking buildings and lighting, the only sources of brightness coming from the book shelves that display the works of writers past and present. I think the bar that Israel and Jack visit may be the only other place that looks remotely welcoming to Israel. This doesn’t excuse the actions she ends up taking, but it offers us perspective and allows us to sympathise with her situation, allowing us to understand Israel even if we don’t condone what she does.

It’s the film’s level of respect that it holds for Israel, as well as the writing world in general, that truly sells it. In the end we’re all simply trying to find a way to have our voices heard, and Heller makes this point loud and clear with the creative choices she makes and the performance she captures from McCarthy.

Not only does Can You Ever Forgive Me break the streak of duds McCarthy has had recently, but it’s a film that deeply resonated with me as a writer who hopes my work is being read by at least somebody. It’s often a tragic tale, but it’s also funny, charming and bittersweet in all the right ways. Here’s hoping it resonates as strongly with creators of all kinds everywhere.

The Sisters Brothers – ★★★☆☆

Fun and light-hearted, The Sisters Brothers is a film that graciously fulfils the requirements if you’re looking for a Western that’s completely content with being itself. It’s hardly the most thought provoking film to emerge from the festival. But it’s more than happy to offer humour and thrills from within its setup, and sometimes that’s all a film needs to do.

Based on Patrick DeWitt’s novel of the same name, the titular brothers are Charlie and Eli Sisters (played by Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly respectively). They’re hitmen who work together under the service of a wealthy man they’re indebted to. In the film they’re tasked with hunting down Herman Warm (Riz Ahmed), a man who supposedly stole from their employer. Their task is made more difficult when Warm teams up with John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man also in their employer’s pocket. As they track down the two men, the brothers question their loyalty to their employer, and what possibilities either of them could have for life if they were to give up the business.

The film essentially boils down to two hours of the fun Western antics, all of which are sprinkled with themes on conflict. Charlie and Eli are fundamentally different personalities despite how much they’ve been through together as brothers. Phoenix and Reilly work phenomenally off each other and embrace the core traits their characters share and differ in. Both have their own emotional baggage underneath the surface, and it often results in tension between them both, even though they work so well together. Furthermore, one of the brothers’ most bitter disagreements is on what they owe their employer or whether they owe him anything at all, resulting in interesting debates on what true loyalty is between the brothers.


Contrast that with the other two main characters, Warm and Morris. Gyllenhaal and Ahmed revisit the chemistry they naturally shared in 2014’s Nightcrawler, but create an all new dynamic with one another, once again becoming a joy to watch. Their characters start off on opposing sides, but eventually start working towards the same goal. They serve as the Sisters Brothers’ mission, but also end up setting an example for the brothers in the long run. It’s a nice twist to the tale in a film that otherwise maintains course on a steady and known formula.

But as they say, it’s not necessarily about the journey as it is about how to get there. And The Sisters Brothers thankfully makes our journey from the opening titles to the closing credits an enjoyable, laid back one through its bursts of comedic appeal, its lustrous cinematography and its engaging story and characters. There aren’t many surprises, outside of the ending. Westerns normally end in carnage of some sort, but the ending the film opted to choose was surprisingly really touching. It leaves a warm feeling in you as you leave the cinema, but the film still has its strengths upon reflection. It’s amusing, it’s interesting, and it’s paced very well. It’s nothing spectacular but it’s a fun time at the movies nonetheless.

Stan & Ollie – ★★★★☆

Closing the 62nd London Film Festival is the premier of Stan & Ollie, a funny, loving biopic on the careers and friendship of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, arguably the kings of comedic double acts.

Although the opening scene begins in 1937, during production of their short Way Out West, the film is primarily set in 1953, long after Laurel and Hardy’s peak. They’re getting older and struggling to obtain funding from studios. But the duo (played by Steve Coogan and a perfectly cast John C. Reilly) still wish to entertain. They decide to go on one last tour to finance their next project. As they travel up and down Britain they must come to terms with thinning audiences, necessary publicity stunts, and the reality of their friendship.

The antics of these two – one playing a pompous slime and the other his clumsy, childlike friend – have been present on our cinema screens for over 90 years. Yet their simple formulas and narratives never fail to deliver hard laughs. Their Oscar-winning 1932 short, The Music Box, still leaves me in stitches every time I watch it. One of this film’s greatest triumphs is its ability to capture what made Laurel and Hardy so special. It wasn’t just their complete lack of pretentiousness in their style of comedy. It was the intoxicating chemistry the two of them shared. Physically and with their humour, they offset each other perfectly. But a lot of people, including many of the fans they interact with, forget that behind their notorious misadventures were two complex people who were as dedicated to each other as they were to making others laugh.

This is the core of the film. It succeeds in amusement and paying homage to this duo’s work via recreations of their old skits, as well as shots and dramatic beats that directly, and ironically, parallel moments from their most famous shorts. But it excels at capturing the raw, heartfelt affection these two shared. It’s interesting to see how different they were from their characters in actuality – Laurel was very much the creative force and Hardy was the gentle peacekeeper with a love of performing – but the dynamic Coogan and Reilly recreate is impossible not to love. The companionship they share is charming and one of a kind, the film often portraying this through visuals and small conversations wonderfully.

Whether you grew up watching them get into another fine mess, or are discovering their work for the first time, you feel the raw chemistry between these two, as well as the love the cast and crew have for these comedic geniuses, thus amplifying and recapturing the love we have for them too.

When drama occurs between the two, mostly revolving round a contract Hardy was in during their Hal Roach years, it doesn’t feel forced or clichéd. They feel like chips in their otherwise stellar relationship. And the introduction of their wives (Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda) effectively add more personal layers to what the two of them value. Henderson and Arianda could’ve made a great comedic duo on their own as their screen time together often garnered humour as strong as Coogan and Reilly’s.

It’s not only the performances though. It’s Jeff Pope’s touchingly sentimental script, and Jon S. Baird’s warm, thoughtful direction that brings out what these two shared in all its heartfelt glory. Whether you grew up watching them get into another fine mess, or are discovering their work for the first time, you feel the raw chemistry between these two, as well as the love the cast and crew have for these comedic geniuses, thus amplifying and recapturing the love we have for them too.

Some historical liberties are taken at instances, but they do little to detract from the film’s main narrative. It’s humorous and entertaining, but also heartfelt and sincere overall. Laurel and Hardy have had us laughing for nearly 100 years, and this film shows why we’re still going to be laughing 100 years later.