The heart-wrenching yet inspirational true story of folk artist Maud Lewis seems tailor-made for the movie biopic treatment. At the same time it’s a type of story that demands a sensitive and sure-handed approach. There are several examples of films that lost themselves in sentimentality and showiness when attempting to work with similar material.
Aisling Walsh’s “Maudie” falls for none of those trappings. The Irish director’s deftly handled portrait resembles one of Maud’s paintings in that it keeps things simple. At the same time Walsh never compromises the genuine emotion inextricably linked to Maud’s life and she utilizes two phenomenal performances to fill in the details.
Sherry White’s patient, poignant script features a clear-eyed focus on Maud’s unique relationship with a local fish peddler named Everett Lewis . White and Walsh want us in the role of observer, not so much on any extensive plotting, but on these two characters and their fascinating relationship which emotionally ranges from heart-crushing to uplifting.
Sally Hawkins takes on the title role and gives a performance that should light up the eyes of Academy voters. Hawkins vanishes into her character and fearlessly tackles the challenges of portraying Maud’s frail body, soft voice, and irrepressible positive spirit. Hawkins captures both the debilitating nature of Maud’s rheumatoid arthritis and well as the her wide-eyed optimism and ability to see the good in the harsh world surrounding her.
We first see Maud cast off by her brother to live with her curmudgeon of an aunt in 1930s small town Nova Scotia. She sees a means of escape when Everett Lewis, a local fish peddler and jack of all trades, places a “Help Wanted” advertisement for a housekeeper. He’s played with a wheelbarrow load of grumbling temperamental snarl by Ethan Hawke. It’s another great performance from Hawke who continues to extend himself as an actor.
He eventually hires Maud as the live-in maid for his tiny one-room shack (minus the tinier loft upstairs). Everett is a tough nut to crack – a socially dysfuctional recluse who is terrified at the very idea of loving. This leads to some moments of uncomfortable cruelty often spawned from his “King of my Castle” mentality (In one particularly cruel scene Everett berates Maud letting her know she falls below his dogs and chickens in the house pecking order). But it also comes from Everett’s own awkwardness and osctracism – a bond he shares with Maud.
As their unconventional relationship takes a new form Maud begins to express herself through painting – on postcards, on wood planks, even on the walls of their shack. After an art-loving New Yorker (Kari Matchett) takes a liking to her paintings word quickly spreads and soon people from all over are travelling to see the little house and Maud’s artwork.
Regardless of how it may sound, this isn’t a rags-to-riches story. In fact, despite making money from her paintings, Maud and Everett lived for in their “Little House” for over 30 years. It now sits on display in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Instead this is a quirky but uplifting love story ripe with inspiring life lessons – that beauty lies in the simplest of things; that genuine contentment can often lead to genuine happiness; that true love can be found in the most unexpected places – just to name a few.
Simply put “Maudie” is a delight. It is a life-affirming movie that feels both tragic and beautiful. Guy Godfree’s cinematography is superb framing shot after shot as if they were settled on a canvas. The Michael Timmins score is simple, fitting, and never manipulative. And of course White’s script and Walsh’s direction. But it all comes back to the two lead performers particularly Sally Hawkins. She brings this lovely soul to life with such heart and vivid detail. It’s a performance certain to leave an impression on any viewer and I can guarantee that by the end you will want to know more about Maud Lewis.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS