Maudie

September 1, 2017
Maudie & Everett get hitched
Maudie & Everett get hitched

In every bio pic one can’t help wondering what the subjects of the film actually looked like. Unless it’s a movie about another movie star it’s unusual for the lead actors to closely resemble the people they’re playing. In the case of Maudie it seems that director, Aisling Walsh, was never interested in getting leads that bore even the slightest resemblance to Canadian folk painter, Maud Lewis (1903-70), and her dour, fish peddler husband, Everett.

A little historical footage flashed up on screen at the end of the film suggests that the real Maud and Everett would have been delighted to think they’d be portrayed one day by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. Maud seems to have been a tiny, bird-like woman with an oversized head, while Everett was gawky, pot-bellied, long-necked and bald-headed. “Aha!” said some visionary in central casting: “Ethan Hawke!”

This is not the only aspect of Maud Lewis’s life that has been tidied up by Walsh and scriptwriter, Sherry White. While the story seems brutal enough it’s a shamelessly romanticised version of Maud and Everett’s relationship.
The filmmakers have concocted a stumbling love story between two misfits in Digby, Nova Scotia, where for at least part of the year the scenery is spectacular. It’s the human landscape that remains bleak.

At the beginning of the film Maud is living with her aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose), the most reluctant of hosts. She only wants to go home, but this isn’t possible because her father and mother are dead, and her appalling brother, Charles (Zachary Bennett), has cashed in the family house. Small and misshapen, Maud is already suffering from a condition that will be diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis.

This doesn’t preclude Maud from having the same needs as any young person. When she gets the chance she sneaks out of her aunt’s clutches to go a local hall where she can drink a beer and improvise a few turns on the dance floor. She is so determined to be independent that when she sees a gruff workman post an ad for a housekeeper at the general store, she applies at once.

The house turns out to be a primitive one-room shack with a sleeping loft. The lord and master is Everett Lewis, a mean, taciturn character who makes a living selling fish and doing odd jobs for the local school. Everett is inarticulate and apparently illiterate. He spent a tortured childhood in an orphanage and has grown into a complete misanthrope.

Solitude has not improved his manners. He continually calls Maud “a cripple”, complains she’s lazy and useless, making it clear that in the hierarchy of his possessions she ranks below the dog and the chickens. As there is only one bed Maud has to bunk in with the master, who eventually tries to assert his baronial privileges.

Maud perseveres with this life, finding distraction in painting small pictures and decorations. This hobby becomes an obsession, and soon she is covering the walls and windows with bright, colouful images. Everett doesn’t know what to make of her painting, although he instinctively disapproves. It’s only when Maud’s work gets noticed by a sophisticated lady from New York (Kari Matchett) who has a holiday home in Digby, that he realises there might be a dollar in this stuff.

As Maud grows progressively more famous, Everett becomes grudgingly human, albeit never fully. They get married, but remain in the same lonely shack. Her condition gradually deteriorates but she keeps on painting, gripping the brush in gnarled, twisted hands.

The touching aspect of Maud’s work is that it is so relentlessly cheerful. Living with constant pain, in an environment that would make most people despair, she produces vibrant naïve landscapes, images of animals and flowers.

Although Ethan Hawke does well, cast resolutely against type, Maudie is Sally Hawkins’s film. She finds an incredible depth in this role, in which she keeps smiling through the most desperate privation. It’s a performance that should put her on the list of nominees for next year’s Oscars. Although Maud has comparatively little to say, Hawkins makes her body language speak most eloquently. She limps along, hunched and contorted, never complaining. Most of her expression is in her eyes, and the thin smile that stays glued to her mouth. When she sits down at the kitchen table to paint, the images flow freely.

Maudie is a film that transcends sentimentality and becomes genuinely moving. It’s not simply due to the lead character’s stoicism and ability to wring happiness from squalor. It’s because Maud’s preoccupation tells us something fundamental about the nature of art – that it can take one out of the stream of everyday life; that it can be a great consolation and a source of ecstasy. When she is painting it doesn’t matter to Maud if she is crippled or poor. She doesn’t dwell on the idea that life has dealt her a rotten hand. To sit and capture the world at the end of a brush is to enter a state of grace.

Maudie
Directed by Aisling Walsh
Written by Sherry White
Starring Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke, Kari Matchett, Gabrielle Rose, Zachary Bennett, Billy MacLellan
Ireland/Canada, rated PG, 115 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 2 September, 2017