A stellar, warmly persuasive starring turn by Sally Hawkins as crippled, self-taught painter Maud Lewis is the raison d’etre of Maudie. A sort of mild, Canadian, female variation on My Left Foot, Irish director Aisling Walsh’s third big-screen feature is a sympathetic and observant look at a mid-century social outcast who, upon an unlikely marriage to another iconoclast, became a pioneer of the Art Naïve school. It’s a very small, intimate piece that operates within a narrow tonal and emotional range, a claustrophobic two-hander most of the way that will appeal almost exclusively to older art house patrons, but it has a shot at carving a profile for itself on the basis of Hawkins’ captivating performance.
Certainly the central premise represents the antithesis of what most paying customers of the cinema want to see: In the late 1930s, two pushing-middle-age eccentrics — one a hobbled, odd-looking woman suffering from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, the other a crabby, orphanage-raised, antisocial misfit who makes what passes for a living peddling fish and chopped wood in the wilds of Nova Scotia — get together to inhabit the latter’s 10′ x 12′ house (the bed is in a loft reached through a hole in the ceiling). If you thought the quarters in Room were cramped and under-furnished, wait ‘til you see this.
Still, by the time Maud accepts an arrangement to work for a pittance keeping house for Everett (Ethan Hawke, who can’t help but cut an attractive figure despite desperate attempts to the contrary), undeniable palpitations of sympathy have already been felt for the unkempt little lady. Despite her limping gait, gnarled hands, hunched back and haywire hair, she gamely attends a local dance club and puts on a big, welcoming smile to those she meets. Tossed aside in turn by her embarrassed brother and grim puritanical aunt, Maud, with no money or prospects, has little choice at age 34 but to accept Everett’s proposal, even if the man has nothing to offer other than the four walls and roof that protect him from the fierce local elements.
Certainly his personality would give pause to anyone but the most desperate potential partner. Despite his meager circumstances, grumpy Everett makes it clear Maud rates only third in importance in the household, after his dogs and chickens. At the same time, sharing the same bed leads to certain other eventualities, including the revelation that she had a baby some time back that was given away. “We’re like a pair of odd socks,” she observes once they settle into their own peculiar version of marital accord, with Maud admittedly happy and Everett his same old gruff self.
Starting by adding color to little things around the house, then to walls and nearly everything else, Maud begins painting. The work is strictly decorative at first, the subjects drawn from surrounding nature — flowers, plants, animals. Eventually, one spring, she puts out a sign: “Paintings for sale.” And so begins a modest but ever-growing career for this peculiar woman who paints everyday objects in a simple, one-dimensional fashion that evinces no awareness of art history or other styles but nonetheless possesses an undeniable simplistic appeal; she knows she has it made when the Nixon White House buys some of her work.
But there are always problems, including news about her daughter and Everett’s pathetic way of dealing with his utter lack of self-esteem, which is to take it out on his wife. As time goes on, her arthritis gets so bad it’s painful for her to hold a brush, and even after developing emphysema, she can’t stop smoking. Things don’t get better.
It was nervy on the part of screenwriter Sherry White and director Walsh to think that there was an accessible and appealing film in these lives, even if it is, in its own eccentric way, a classic success story against the odds, a tale of an extreme underdog who achieves a certain measure of success and happiness. At least this is how the life is positioned for public consumption here, even to the point of casting Maud’s husband with an actor of undisguisable good looks.
The film ends with a black-and-white photograph of the real Maud and Everett and it’s such a jolt as to be, arguably, a mistake to show it, as it makes you feel like you’ve just seen a far too idealized version of the truth. Based on the photo, the actual Maud resembled a sweet but shrunken version of Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch in mid-meltdown), while the real Everett could pass for an emaciated version of Bernie Sanders; no Ethan Hawke he.
All the same, Hawkins’ performance splendidly carries the day. With the cards stacked so high against her ever doing anything with her life and experiencing consistent rejection, Maud all but flaunts her gallant lack of any expectations; for this reason, she can truly and gratefully say, near the end of her life, that “I was loved.” That Everett can’t reciprocate by showing more than specks of human decency is a shame, but she was glad to have him and her art, which was enough.
No matter how self-effacingly Hawke plays his massively antisocial character, it’s impossible for him to convincingly project looks deficiency, which is a problem. The score gets a bit cloyingly emotional at times, while the bracingly wild and desolate Newfoundland locations, substituting for Nova Scotia, have been evocatively captured by cinematographer Guy Godfree.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Production: Rink Rat Productions, Screen Door, Parallel Films
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke, Kai Matchett, Zachary Bennett, Gabrielle Rose, Billy Maclellan, Greg Malone
Director: Aisling Walsh
Screenwriter: Sherry White
Producers: Bob Cooper, Mary Young Leckie, Mary Sexton, Susan Mullen
Executive producers: Heather Haldane, Hussain Haldane, Mark Roberts, Sheldon Rabinowitz, Ross Jacobson, Ed Richie, Tyler Mitchell, Alan Moloney, Johanna Hogan
Director of photography: Guy Godfree
Production designer: John Hand
Costume designer: Trysha Bakker
Editor: Stephen O’Connell
Music: Michael Timmins
Casting: John Buchan, Jason Knight
Not rated, 115 minutes