Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke shine in the tale of Maud Lewis’ life

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Robert Abele cal­en­dar@la­times.com

Sally Hawkins turns a crum­pled mis­fit into an af­fect­ing fig­ure of for­ti­tude and op­ti­mism in “Maudie,” a por­trait of the artist as a her­mit wife that over­comes some clunky early brush­strokes to achieve a gen­uine grace and con­sid­er­able poignancy.

Though “Maudie” is a decades-span­ning bi­og­ra­phy of Nova Sco­tia folk artist Maud Lewis, who died in 1970, in the hands of Hawkins, screen­writer Sherry White and di­rec­tor Ais­ling Walsh, it plays more like a frac­tured fa­ble of ful­fill­ment and unexpected ro­mance. That’s partly be­cause Maud’s in­su­lated ex­is­tence — spent mostly in a shed-sized cot­tage with her tac­i­turn hus­band, Everett (a riv­et­ing Ethan Hawke) — hardly lends it­self to your typ­i­cal time­line-hop­ping Great Lady nar­ra­tive.

This is quiet por­trai­ture, the story of an un­ap­pre­ci­ated odd­ball who found her­self by mak­ing art and, in do­ing so, turned a hard-bit­ten man into a lov­ing part­ner and drew the out­side world to her mod­est, col­or­fully dec­o­rated door. (Even Richard Nixon, then vice pres­i­dent, bought one of her paint­ings; she wanted the pay­ment mailed first.)

As it gets go­ing, how­ever, “Maudie” wor­ry­ingly sug­gests some­thing sac­cha­rine, of the cute-out­cast va­ri­ety. Earn­ing mostly scorn from her be­lea­guered, care­taker aunt (Gabrielle Rose) and shady brother (Zachary Ben­nett), Maud is in­tro­duced to us as a small town-iso­lated bun­dle of awk­ward­ness, save the oc­ca­sional burst of wry hu­mor and de­fi­ance.

Her spe­cific af­flic­tion goes un­men­tioned un­til later, when rheuma­toid arthri­tis is ref­er­enced, but Hawkins’ limp­ing, chin­less, shrunken phys­i­cal­ity and halt­ing, girl­ish rasp as a thir­tysome­thing wom­an­child ach­ing to be in­de­pen­dent ini­tially carry the un­for­tu­nate over­tones of a TV movie.

But then she an­swers an ad at the gen­eral store for a live-in house­maid, and we’re in­tro­duced to brutish recluse Everett, a lo­cal fish­er­man and scrap dealer with a can­tan­ker­ous pride in his self-made, se­cluded ways, who lives with no elec­tric­ity or run­ning water.

It’s a tense ar­range­ment for a long-pitied woman strain­ing for adult­hood and a stony man set in his ways, one made no eas­ier by their shar­ing the same bed in his cramped at­tic.

Com­pro­mises are made. When his needs get bi­o­log­i­cal, her coun­terof­fer is mar­riage. When she turns to her self-taught paint­ing — on the walls and on left­over par­ti­cle board — he reluc­tantly ac­cepts.

And when her brightly col­ored, simple na­ture scenes at­tract a nearby art dealer (Kari Match­ett), the ex­tra money (and her book­keep­ing skills) adds a fur­ther equa­nim­ity to their part­ner­ship. Even­tu­ally, love set­tles in.

Be­tween Everett’s blunt in­sis­tence on tra­di­tional gen­der roles and Maud’s pa­tient long-game to blur those lines and fill the space with who she is — lit­er­ally too, since their painted house is now on dis­play at an art gallery in Hal­i­fax — “Maudie” is like a charm­ingly cracked do­mes­tic play about wait­ing the other per­son out.

As she blos­soms — just enough, not too much — he grunts and soft­ens, just enough, not too much. Un­like the thick di­rect­ness in Maud’s work, the movie about her is al­most pointil­list in de­tail­ing the tiny steps that make up an en­dur­ing mar­riage.

Walsh’s great­est as­set is her two leads, and she knows it, her usu­ally fixed cam­era as at­ten­dant to their per­for­mance needs as the Le­wises’ front win­dow was for Maud’s in­spi­ra­tion. (“The whole of life al­ready framed, right there,” she says.) The years have con­di­tioned us to ex­pect Hawkins to bring an ec­cen­tric to vivid life, and she does here with pre­ci­sion and soul.

The trick­ier role is Hawke’s. But with a gar­dener’s sen­si­tiv­ity he nur­tures Everett through bit­ter, oc­ca­sion­ally abu­sive mas­culin­ity to­ward a place of sur­pris­ing care and love. Though Hawkins and Hawke look noth­ing like the peo­ple they’re play­ing — as un­for­tu­nately shown at the end with archival footage, the kind of doc­u­men­tary gild­ing in biopics I al­ways feel is a dis­ser­vice to the ac­tors — they live in­side the movie with un­forced au­thor­ity.

The later years bring with them the in­evitable ache of age, re­gret and loss — and even a heart­break­ing rev­e­la­tion re­gard­ing a tragedy from Maud’s early life — but the bur­nished glow of a hard-earned com­fort still re­mains. “Maudie” takes the gnarled hand of its sub­ject, and the deep sat­is­fac­tion of cre­ated art, and finds more to con­nect the two than just a dipped paint­brush.

Dun­can de Young Sony Pic­tures Clas­sics

FISH­ER­MAN EVERETT (Ethan Hawke) and folk artist Maud (Sally Hawkins) build a life to­gether in the bi­o­graph­i­cal film “Maudie.”

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