Pic­ture-per­fect pathos

‘Maudie’ is a sad film about poor peo­ple, but it could barely be more open to benev­o­lence and quiet hu­man­ism, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC -

Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke in Maudie

MAUDIE Di­rected by Ais­ling Walsh. Star­ring Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke, Kari Match­ett, Gabrielle Rose, Zachary Ben­nett, Billy MacLel­lan. 15A cert, gen re­lease, 116 min There are peo­ple who will re­main un­moved by Ais­ling Walsh’s won­der­ful study of the Cana­dian folk artist Maud Lewis. There are also peo­ple who wil­fully stand on spi­ders and fail to pat old dogs out­side su­per­mar­kets. I can’t say I’d like to spend any time alone with such a fel­low.

Maudie is a sad film about poor peo­ple, but it could scarcely be more open to benev­o­lence and quiet hu­man­ism. The ti­tle char­ac­ter’s ter­ri­ble vul­ner­a­bil­ity – cou­pled with a sin­gu­lar de­ter­mi­na­tion – in­vites a de­gree of em­pa­thy that can some­times feel un­com­fort­able. We are for­ever wish­ing that her com­pan­ions could be a bit nicer to her. We wish the whole world could be a bit less wretched.

After an open­ing shot of the old Maude (Sally Hawkins) forc­ing arthritic fin­gers to paint flow­ers on a wall, the film slips back to find the younger ver­sion, child of a mid­dle-class fam­ily, be­ing vir­tu­ally ex­pelled from her home.

Her brother and her aunt have sold the house, but Maude – who is what we could now call in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled – has no in­ten­tion of mov­ing from the wind-bat­tered Nova Sco­tian vil­lage. She finds things to do. She en­joys hav­ing a smoke at the lo­cal road­house. We are told that, some years back, she be­came preg­nant and that the child died at birth.

One day, while vis­it­ing the lo­cal store, she spots an ad­ver­tise­ment from Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), a lo­cal fish seller, look­ing for some­body to clean his unlovely shack. She tears the pa­per from the wall and hob­bles out to of­fer her ser­vices.

An abu­sive re­la­tion­ship re­sults. Everett is ex­plicit about the con­tempt he has for her. “Let me tell you how it is,” he says. “There’s me. There’s them dogs, them chick­ens. And then there’s you.” There be­ing only one bed in the house, she is forced to spend ini­tially un­com­fort­able nights wrapped around his rough frame.

The film asks a bit of its audience as the re­la­tion­ship evolves into an un­likely ro­mance. Hawke does al­low an in­ner warmth to Everett, but it is buried be­neath such icy bru­tal­ity that es­cape seems the only thing worth hop­ing for. Hawkins’s bril­liant per­for­mance is un­spar­ing in its sym­pa­thy. She be­gins at a busy shuf­fle and ends, body arthrit­i­cally curled like a clench­ing fist, as a barely mo­bile in­valid. And yet the com­pro­mise these two reach is be­liev­able. Their per­son­al­i­ties come across as car­i­ca­tures of gen­er­al­i­ties con­cern­ing gen­der. She is open and emo­tion­ally frank. He is closed and emo­tion­ally in­hib­ited. To­gether they make a whole.

It’s worth clar­i­fy­ing what doesn’t hap­pen. Maudie’s art starts as an au­to­matic dis­trac­tion. She paints flow­ers and an­i­mals on the walls. Then she moves on to lovely naive ar­range­ments on post­cards. In a typ­i­cally el­e­gant touch from Sherry White’s dis­ci­plined screen­play, Maudie com­ments upon “a win­dow, the whole of life, al­ready framed”. That sim­ple phrase sums up what she does.

Even­tu­ally a posh lady vis­it­ing from the city of­fers to buy one of her paint­ings and, after a spell, a de­gree of renown comes her way. But we get no scenes with Maudie adrift among snooty col­lec­tors in a New York gallery. There is no great el­e­va­tion to the pan­theon. Shot in beau­ti­ful damp shades by Guy God­free, the film’s great­est gift to Maude is a de­gree of sta­bil­ity in the or­di­nary shack that is her whole world.

The iso­la­tion is so great that (though we’ve heard men­tion of “vice-president Nixon”) it comes as a shock to en­counter the nearly mod­ern world in the film’s clos­ing mo­ments. For most of its du­ra­tion, Maudie could be set at al­most any point in the last cen­tury. There have al­ways been such peo­ple and we’ve never been kind enough to them.

An ab­so­lute de­light.

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